During her 2016 congressional campaign in Tallahassee, Lathika Mary Thomas ran as a "constitutional conservative" who supported tax cuts and opposed illegal immigration.
She also called the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage "an abomination," according to a Tallahassee Democrat article.
"They tear at the very fabric of American society," Thomas said at the time. "We must repeal Obamacare and defend the Constitution. Nothing less will suffice."
Thomas lost the primary to Panama City surgeon Neal Dunn, who won the District 2 seat previously held by Democrat Gwen Graham. But Thomas recently applied for public office again, this time in Pinellas County.
The position: family court judge.
If Gov. Rick Scott selects Thomas, she will oversee cases like divorces, child support issues and adoptions.
That raises the question: If gay couples or parents appear in her courtroom, could Thomas be objective?
Thomas, who previously worked for Scott, declined to comment. She sent a reporter a statement from a reference.
"Mary has conservative values while at the same time having a strong belief in upholding the rule of law and not ruling based on her personal beliefs," said Jason Gonzalez, former general counsel to then Gov. Charlie Crist.
It’s not uncommon, Gonzalez added, "for a judge to disagree with a law, while at the same time upholding the same law."
Thomas’ consideration for the Pinellas-Pasco circuit bench highlights the delicate balance judges exercise between their beliefs and their legal duty to remain impartial in court.
"Judges are people who have points of view," said Louis J. Virelli III, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who wrote a book about U.S. Supreme Court recusals.
Nationwide, the impartiality of judicial candidates has come under scrutiny after statements they’d previously said or written surfaced.
Last year, an Alabama federal court nominee was criticized by Democrats for writing about joining the NRA after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.
In 2005, a U.S. Supreme Court nominee was also questioned for supporting the idea of a constitutional amendment banning abortions during her campaign for the Dallas City Council.
If Thomas is appointed to one of the judicial vacancies created by two retiring judges in the Pinellas-Pasco circuit, she likely could be impartial. But because of her campaign rhetoric, Virelli said, "Has she already given the impression that she can’t be fair?"
The "prudent" course in a case where a judge can’t be impartial, Virelli added, is recusal.
"We are balancing a concern about not only a judge being impartial, but a judge appearing impartial to the general public and that’s important for the integrity of the court system," he said.
According to her judicial application, Thomas, 39, was raised in Pinellas County and is the daughter of Indian immigrants.
A Florida State University law school graduate, she worked in Scott’s office as an assistant general counsel between 2011 and 2013 and provided legal advice directly to the governor, she wrote in her application.
Thomas later worked as general counsel for the state Department of Elder Affairs in Tallahassee. In 2016, she ran for a congressional seat in District 2, speaking at Trump rallies and branding herself as a political outsider.
Last June, she became the director of policy for a U.S. Department of Justice office that provides community grants. Thomas’ legal expertise includes land use, administrative, environmental and insurance defense law.
"Public servants, including judges, encounter many personalities in the courtroom, and I have experience with and enjoy interacting with many different types of people," she wrote.
Last year, more than 30 lawyers, among them local prosecutors, county judges, and defense lawyers, applied for the two vacancies, both in family court, in the Pinellas-Pasco circuit. The salary is $160,688.
A judicial nominating commission interviewed them and forwarded 11 names, including Thomas’, to Scott in November.
He has 60 days to make the appointments.
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Tracey McManus contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.