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County losing half of its judges to retirement

Photo: From left: Judges Robert Pegg, Joe Wild and Paul Kanarek

Come year’s end, the Indian River County courthouse will lose three of its six sitting judges to retirement. The men, who serve on both the 19th Judicial Circuit and the County Court bench, collectively have spent more than 70 years making decisions that shaped the county’s growth and development and helped protect the safety and wellbeing of the residents who call it home.

They’ve put murderers behind bars, tried to ensure fair development, kept the courthouse running smoothly, made tough decisions and held lawyers accountable. Sometimes, their decisions are challenged. Other times, they are celebrated. At all times, however, their work has lasting impact.

“Overall, I think we are losing three very good judges,” Bruce Colton, State Attorney for the 19th Judicial Circuit said of the impending departure of Judges Robert Pegg, Joe Wild and Paul Kanarek.

“These are people who are making decisions who can affect all of our lives, even those that don’t have anything to do with the court system – large civil cases, criminal cases – they are setting the tone for how the law is enforced in our county.”

As they prepare to watch judicial candidates vie for their seats in the 2018 election season, the outgoing judges talked with Vero Beach 32963 about their decades at the bench and how they’ve seen the workings of the local justice system change.

The Hon. Robert Pegg, who at age 70 has reached Florida’s mandatory retirement age for judges, spent nine years on the felony bench overseeing some of the region’s most serious criminal trials before moving to family court.  He said he will never forget how a defendant in a Vero Beach murder investigation got caught months after he drove north to Wisconsin with the body of his victim in his car.

The man abandoned the car without removing the remains, Pegg recalled. The body froze in the icy winter weather and the case went cold along with it. Come summer, though, when the corpse thawed and began to rot, the putrid smell attracted attention and brought law enforcement to the scene, leading to the murderer’s eventual arrest and conviction.  

It has been amazing to watch how advances in science and crime scene forensics have changed criminal prosecution, said Pegg, a graduate of the University of Miami. Prior to becoming a judge, Pegg had a private law practice in Vero Beach, specializing in criminal defense and personal injury claims.

Improvements in DNA gathering, ballistics review and microscopic analysis have paved the way for so many more crimes to be solved, he said. “The crime scene people are so good at what they do, people who would have gotten away 10 years ago now can’t believe they are getting caught.”

Pegg ran for judge twice before being elected in 2006. He is now considering entering private law practice again or becoming a senior judge. Senior judges are retired judges who return to circuit one year after retirement on an as needed basis to preside over cases when the docket is crowded and additional help is needed.

“I wanted to be a judge for a long time,” said Pegg. “I thought of myself as a people person. I could listen better than I could talk and thought that would be a good job.”

It isn’t just the trials and hearings that cause reflection, said the Hon. Joe Wild, 62, who joined the county bench in 1989 after serving as a top prosecutor in Indian River County. His retirement will come after 30 years on the bench overseeing everything from property disputes to animal welfare claims and allegations of misdemeanor crime.

“There are so many different cases,” he said. “There are all kinds of good stories and bad stories and weird stories. It’s always been an interesting day whenever you come to work.”

Wild, a graduate of Vero Beach High School and Florida State University, watched as a new courthouse was constructed downtown, bringing with it upgrades in technology that he says improved communication and record-keeping between agencies, such as the offices of the public defender, state attorney and courthouse clerk. 

He, too, is considering a role as a senior judge.  “It’s really been a pleasure working with all the people that are involved in the judicial system here and it’s just a great community to live in,” said Wild.

“Being a judge, it’s an important position and people ought to take seriously their responsibility in picking a judge for their county. I’m hoping people will take it seriously in the next election.”

The Hon. Paul Kanarek, who, like Pegg, is being forced to retire due to age restrictions for judicial candidates in the state of Florida, started working as a judge on the 19th Judicial Circuit in 1988.

One of his first major cases involved Marriott’s proposed hotel and resort hotel development in Central Beach. The company was challenging municipal regulations preventing the construction. Kanarek, 67, affirmed earlier rulings and the area just north of Conn Beach was preserved for single-family homes.

The Stuart native, who has worked in all four counties in the 19th Judicial Circuit, is proud to call Vero Beach home.

Before becoming a judge, Kanarek, a University of Florida graduate, served as an assistant public defender and also had his own private law practice. He spent a significant amount of time in family and juvenile law trying to make the best decisions for children and their parents. He now sits on the civil circuit court bench.

Judges’ decisions affect people they meet in the courtroom and people they will never meet, said Kanarek, who is also considering a role as a senior judge. They preside over divorce, custody disputes and monetary judgements that have lasting impacts.

“We deal with people every day and we can’t forget that these are people’s lives. No matter what we’re hearing, we’re dealing with people’s lives and it’s important to remember that,” he said.

Throughout his tenure Kanarek watched the justice system grow to meet the expanding needs of a growing community. The Indian River County Courthouse in Vero Beach now houses six judges working full time at the circuit and county level, but Kanarek remembers a time when there were only two.

If it was allowed, Kanarek would stay on the bench. “I still enjoy coming to work every day, and given the opportunity I would continue on in this job,” Kanarek said.

“There is not a week that goes by that something doesn’t happen that I say, ‘I’ve never seen that before. That’s amazing.’ That’s one of the things I like about this job.”