Posted by on March 15, 2013 in Blog

Do you remember what you wanted to be when you were in 7th seventh grade? Michelle Kalil is one of the rare people who knew exactly what she wanted to be from an early age: a lawyer and a judge. She turned her fascination with the Supreme Court and judiciary into a career in criminal law, and this past November she was elected as Duval County Judge.

Serving on the judiciary had always on been on Kalil’s mind; she spent most of her career working in the Public Defender’s Office and had recently started her own practice. When one of the Duval County judges announced his retirement, the opportunity presented itself. “It is not often that a judge position opens up before an election,” said Kalil, “and after giving it some thought, and speaking to family and others, I felt it was the right time for me to run.”

Kalil’s legal experience is substantial. She began by volunteering with local legal organizations in high school, after she went to college she came back every summer to work for local offices. Kalil says that after doing trial practice in law school, she knew she wanted to work in the State Attorney’s or Public Defender’s Office.

When asked about her experience with this campaign, Kalil said that running a judicial campaign was unlike anything else she’d ever done, and her eyes were opened up to a whole new world. A judicial race has one important distinction from any other election: it is totally nonpartisan and candidates are very restricted in what they can discuss. “We can’t give opinions on issues, we don’t have platforms per se, and we can’t discuss party affiliation. It’s tough because you can’t always answer people’s questions on the campaign, so really it comes down to talking to people about your biography and experience, and all that combined has to demonstrate that you’re the best qualified,” says Kalil.

Kalil’s opponent in the Group 12 race was another female lawyer named Rhonda Peoples-Waters. Both women had worked together before and had similar backgrounds, even attending the same law school. Those factors sometimes made it difficult throughout the campaign process to distinguish themselves from each other. In the end, the voters did differentiate and Kalil won by a solid margin. In her eyes, it was not just her considerable trial experience that helped her, but also her ability to convey that she has the right experience for the job as well as the capacity to not only apply the law but to deal with people fairly.

Kalil says she didn’t experience any issues during her campaign because of being Arab American. She said that overall there was more negativity related to the idea of a female judge rather than a candidate’s ethnicity. One of her favorite parts of the campaign experience was meeting with so many diverse groups and hearing about their experiences, while being able to share her own.

The Kalil family has lived in Jacksonville for almost 60 years. Michelle Kalil has deep roots in this community and is active in a number of Jacksonville groups and organizations, including the Ramallah Club, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless, Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Jacksonville Women’s Lawyer’s Association, Women in Business Networking Group, and the Jacksonville Bar Association.

What does Kalil hope to see for Jacksonville’s future? “There are so many different groups here, we have so many people that have the ability to get more involved with the city, and if we really stick together we could do a lot. Unfortunately there is divisiveness, but we could see some change if we rally, especially with this younger community. I’m seeing a lot more community involvement with that generation.” Kalil points out that working for your state or local government doesn’t mean big money, which can turn some people away. “The work you will do for your community is invaluable,” she emphasizes, “and if you stick with what you love you will find success.”

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