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Palm Coast Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 2 weeks ago

Judge Andrea Totten's path to the Flagler County bench

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Flagler's newest judge reflects on her journey to the judicial seat.
by: Joey Pellegrino Staff Writer

The walls and furniture in Judge Andrea Totten’s chambers in the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center were still bare after her first day on the Seventh Judicial Circuit Court. Framed degrees and other personal affects sat in plastic containers, waiting to be hung. She had spent most of that first day in court, sitting in on criminal arraignment with Judge Melissa Distler, whose caseload is meant to be lessened by Totten’s appointment to the court, and on the county civil docket, which is to be hers, with retired Judge Pope Hamrick.

“I’m easing into it,” Totten said. When she was not in court, she was making calls to IT, “trying to get the various computer programs figured out.”

As a child who moved first from Newfoundland to southern Ontario, and from there to Pennsylvania before her senior year of high school, she has learned to adjust to major changes. Going from the state Attorney General’s Office to a new judicial seat came with less culture shock, and it was a move to someplace she had always thought she may end up at.

“I honestly can’t remember when I didn’t want to go to law school,” Totten said. “I just remember from childhood, that always being my plan. There’s a satisfaction in serving victims.” 

 

How to learn, how to fail

She thought at first she might be a lawyer. After earning a political science degree at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania and attending law school at the University of Toledo, it just happened to be that her first real job was at a state attorney’s office. 

“It taught me how to learn,” Totten said of her time in law school. “You still don’t know how to act as a lawyer” until you begin gaining practical experience. 

After her time as an assistant state attorney in Sanford, Florida, it didn’t take long for Totten to reach Daytona Beach, where, after transitioning from assistant state attorney to judicial law clerk in 2011, Judge Belle Schumann first encouraged her to apply to the Attorney General’s Office. 

Moving between criminal and civil law in the Florida judicial system taught Totten about the gulf between proof beyond a reasonable doubt and proof via a preponderance of the evidence, between criminal law’s emotional challenge (“Case details that kept me up at night”) and civil law’s intellectual challenge. But it also taught her, more importantly, about how to fail.

“I only know what I knew the week before,” she said. “There’s a knowledge and maturity that comes from making mistakes.”

 

The luxury of time

That knowledge and maturity saw Totten appointed to her current judicial seat by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“I’m sure it was a combination of factors” that made DeSantis confident in his choice of her to serve alongside Judge Distler, Totten said. She believes her many levels of experience are the key to her success. Totten admitted her relief to succeeding on her first application, an uncommon achievement.

“I’m relieved to not have to run right away,” she said. Re-election will not be required until 2022.

Totten will not get her own robes until sometime in December. Until then, she has had to borrow them from other judges. So it is with one’s judicial style, too, she said. She has learned punctuality, preparedness and etiquette from Distler; she has learned thoroughness of research from Judge Terence Perkins, for whom she once clerked. “But you can’t replicate just one person,” Totten said.

She has found that a judge has a greater luxury of time than a prosecutor, and that not being on the side of the prosecution is intellectually freeing, allowing one to pursue the facts of a case without the need to rigorously support one side of an argument.

“I believe in the system,” Totten said. “Judges need to stay neutral.”

 

Perspective from the bench

The position’s greater luxury of time extends to her home life. Totten has lived in Flagler County for the past 15 years but has commuted to a Daytona Beach workplace. Now her commute takes one minute, and her husband and two children are relieved.

“They’re proud and excited,” Totten said, even if her young daughter did not fully grasp Mom’s new job. “She thought I was on the Supreme Court. I think she thought that was the only court.”

Totten was grateful for her husband’s support during her years working against a prosecutor’s unpredictable schedule, and the help of her parents, who had moved to Palm Coast ahead of her.

“Family must come first,” she said. “It can be done!”

Totten advises law students who hope to follow in her footsteps to seek out internships as early as possible — even unpaid, the experience is worth it — and tells them there’s no better time, especially for female law professionals; things have improved since she entered the system.

"I believe in the system. Judges need to stay neutral."
Andrea Totten

Yet that sense of being treated differently as a woman, of being approached dismissively or aggressively by male defense attorneys during her time as a young prosecutor, has made her cognizant of the way societal stereotypes, from sex to race, can infect legal proceedings, and has given her perspective.

“I’m really humbled to have been entrusted with this position,” Totten said. “I take a lot of pride in serving the people of the state of Florida.”

“It taught me how to learn,” Totten said of her time in law school. “You still don’t know how to act as a lawyer" until you begin gaining practical experience. 

After her time as assistant state attorney in Sanford, Florida, it didn’t take long for Totten to reach Daytona Beach, where, after transitioning from assistant state attorney to judicial law clerk in 2011, Judge Belle Schumann first encouraged her to apply to the attorney general’s office. 

Moving between criminal and civil law in the Florida judicial system taught Totten about the gulf between proof beyond a reasonable doubt and proof via a preponderance of the evidence, between criminal law’s emotional challenge (“Case details that kept me up at night”) and civil law’s intellectual challenge, but it also taught her, more importantly, about how to fail.

“I only know what I knew the week before,” she said. “There’s a knowledge and maturity that comes from making mistakes.”

 

 

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