Dennis Bailey

Dennis Bailey (Sun Sentinel / July 9, 2014)

Four candidates are in the running to replace retiring Broward Circuit Judge Mel Grossman in the Aug. 26 primary election.

Dennis Bailey, Andrea Ruth Gundersen, Rhoda Sokoloff and Russell Thompson are on the ballot in the non-partisan race. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face off in the general election in November.

Circuit court judges handle felony criminal cases and large civil cases. The job pays about $142,000 a year.

None of the four candidates has held elected office before, but Sokoloff, 61, of Fort Lauderdale, has unsuccessfully campaigned for judge in 2010 and 2012.

"This is something I've wanted since I was 16," said Sokoloff, a sole practitioner who focuses on family law. "It's the pinnacle of your career as a lawyer, and it's an extension of my community service to the people."

A former president of the Broward chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Sokoloff said her experience working in the community has helped prepare her for many of the challenges of the bench. She has also served as a guardian ad litem and as an educator for law enforcement on mental health issues.

Thompson, 59, of Parkland, said he may not have previous campaign experience, but he has spent the past three years as a Traffic Court hearing officer in Broward. The role is similar to a judgeship, but is not elected.

"I enjoy the service aspect of it. It is courtroom experience," he said. "You run the courtroom, you manage the docket, you make sure the process is smooth for everyone involved."

Also a sole practitioner, Thompson's law practice focuses on personal injury cases.

Gundersen, 58, of Davie, said her goal as a judge will be to make a positive impact on people's lives. A member of the organizing committee of Broward's Veteran's Court three years ago, Gundersen said she has demonstrated community service in a tangible way in the courthouse.

This is Gundersen's first campaign, but she has picked up a host of endorsements from well known political and legal figures, including former Attorney General Bob Butterworth and noted attorney W. George Allen.

Bailey, 57, of Pembroke Pines, described himself as the candidate with the widest breadth of experience, having served 10 years as an assistant state attorney in Broward, four years as a criminal defense lawyer, and 14 years as a civil attorney.

He compared managing a court docket to managing the caseloads of attorneys he has supervised, both as a prosecutor and a civil lawyer.

"I have experienced firsthand both the effective use of time and resources and the unfortunate waste of the same," he said.

Bailey has three sons, two on the autism spectrum, and the plight of special needs children is the focus of his work outside the courtroom. "I have focused my energies outside of the law on researching all the different modalities available to help these young men and others like them reach their potential," he said.

He is active with Autism Speaks and the Autism Society of America. He also has a brother, Tim Bailey, who is a Broward Circuit Court Judge.

Gunderson, a single mother of two grown children, has worked with the Mission United Veteran's Pro Bono program to provide free services to veterans and their families, and has organized courthouse tours for middle school students, allowing them to observe real trials and participate in mock trials.

Thompson is a workshop presenter for Broward SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), which assists entrepreneurs in setting up and running small businesses.

In addition to her work on behalf of the mentally ill, Sokoloff has organized and participated in numerous community events, including cultural readings at the African American Research Library and work with Florida Children First, which provides services to at-risk children and teenagers.

rolmeda@sunsentinel.com, 954-356-4457, Twitter @SSCourts