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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Alachua County Court Judge Walter Green retires: What is to come?

As Green retires, a judicial vacancy is left to be handled.

Eric Atria stands in front of the Judge Stephan P. Mickle, Sr. Criminal Courthouse on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024.
Eric Atria stands in front of the Judge Stephan P. Mickle, Sr. Criminal Courthouse on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024.

When Alachua County Court Judge Walter Green announced his retirement in a Sept. 13 letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, he left a vacancy open within the county’s judiciary position.

Defense attorney Eric Atria applied to fill this vacancy. Atria, known across Florida for being “sucker punched,” by his defendant in 2022, hit the ground running with his judicial campaign by seeking endorsements from county commissioners. 

The regular judicial election cycle occurs every six years, but because Green is retiring outside of an election year, a designated process is set aside to elect a new judge. This typically occurs for situations in which judges retire, resign, pass away or take senior status. As Green transitions into retirement, this several-step process begins. 

First, Atria has to meet several requirements relating to his legal experience. This includes being a member of good standing with the Florida Bar as well as at least five years of attorney experience.

To be considered, applicants must apply by Jan. 15. After the application period closes, the 8th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission — a group composed of nine individuals who interview all applicants — choose six names who move forward with the selection process. Those six names are then sent to DeSantis, who chooses one of those names, deciding who will become the new county judge. 

On Nov. 15, 2022, Atria was defending his client, Obadiah Dillard, as a public defense attorney when he was suddenly attacked on his left side, resulting in a fractured skull and broken tooth, rendering him unconscious.

Prior to this attack, legislation stated penalties for attacks against those in a courtroom was only confined to law enforcement officers, correctional officers, state attorneys and assistants, judges and justices. Defense attorneys weren’t included in the list. 

After the attack, Candice Brower, Atria’s boss, realized the omission in the law, and they both worked to incite policy change. 

To amend legislation to include defense attorneys in courtroom security, Atria spoke before the House Criminal Justice Committee, the Senate criminal justice committee and the House Judiciary committee, detailing his background and how he felt. The experience was “life altering,” Atria said.

“I never imagined that we’d be doing anything like that in my life, and I really enjoyed the process,” he said. “I enjoyed being involved in helping the community, helping other people and being involved in a public service role. That was really inspiring to me.”

The amended legislation was approved, and House Bill 71, passed April 13, states penalties against violence committed toward defense attorneys now include felony charges. 

“I’ve worked in the system for almost 20 years, and I know it well,” Atria said. “I know how Alachua County Court works. I know the people involved. And I think a goal as judge would be to make sure that everybody is treated fairly and expeditiously.”

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Atria’s been committed to the law in Alachua County for 18 years, he said.

“I feel as a judge, you want to make them feel like they’re being listened to, and they’re being heard,” he said. “And that when you rule, it’s clear where your ruling is coming from, that it doesn’t seem arbitrary or you’re making something up based on your feelings.”

Walter Green has been the county’s court judge since 2005, and before that the state’s assistant attorney.

“It has been an honor to serve the citizens of Alachua County, Eighth Judicial Circuit and the State of Florida,” Green said. 

In his time as the misdemeanor division chief, he volunteered his time as a mentor to students, eventually becoming the recipient of Florida Bar President's Pro Bono Service Award for the Eighth Judicial Circuit in 2003. 

Christy Cain, a member of Alachua’s Court-Appointed Counsel, details how Green was heavily involved in the community. 

“He volunteered at numerous Alachua County schools by reading to students every week as well as talking to the students about the importance of speaking clearly and looking people in the eyes when you introduce yourself,” Cain said. 

The teachers specifically “appreciated his commitment to get down with the kids and talk to them, and talk to them about social skills,” she said. 

Aside from his involvement within the school districts, Green was on the advisory board of the Center for Children and Families, the Black on Black Crime Task Force, the Josiah T. Walls Bar Association and the Cultural Arts Coalition Board. 

Green was also instrumental in implementing the drug court and mental health court in Alachua, as well as being on the committee to end homelessness in Gainesville, Cain said. 

As Green steps down, Atria aims for the newly presented spot, representing Alachua County as one of five county judges. 

If successful, Atria would be working with other Alachua County Judges Thomas M. Jaworski, Susan Miller-Jones, Meshon T. Rawls and Kristine Van Vorst. 

No other candidates have publicly campaigned for the position as of Jan. 7. 

Contact Kairi Lowery at Follow her on X @kairiloweryy. 

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Kairi Lowery

Kairi Lowery is a second-year journalism major and a metro general assignment reporter for The Alligator. When she's not writing you can find her lounging on the beach with a book or collecting vinyls. 

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