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    Judge's toughness has won him fans

    Elvin Martinez is called gruff, blunt and fair. His handling of a sassy 13-year-old truant brings him applause.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 13, 2002


    TAMPA -- As a state lawmaker, part of Elvin Martinez's charm was his blunt-spoken, home-grown scrappiness -- traits that told his West Tampa constituents he was one of them, in touch with their concerns and willing to enter legislative frays, in the words of one acquaintance, like "a pit bull."

    Voters kept him in office for 27 years, sending him back even after a misdemeanor conviction for filing late taxes. Now, in his fifth year as a Hillsborough County judge, the 67-year-old Martinez brings bare-knuckled jurisprudence and more than a little swagger to the bench.

    He once threatened to "knock the hell" out of a defendant whose shirt was unbuttoned. When the sheriff complained about Martinez berating a deputy, the judge called the sheriff a "crybaby."

    "You have that macho kind of mannerism when you come from the community we come from," said county Democratic Executive Committee chairman Mike Scionti, who grew up near Martinez in the West Tampa of the 1940s. Scionti remembers it as a tough, working class neighborhood where straying too far into the wrong block could lead to fistfights.

    "What you see is what you get with Elvin," he said.

    Last week, Martinez's treatment of a 13-year-old girl in his courtroom raised new questions about his manner.

    The girl's mother told the judge she had skipped school and stolen her car. Martinez told the girl he didn't like her and that she belonged on the Jerry Springer Show. Displeased with her facial expressions, he had her put in handcuffs and held her in contempt of court.

    Martinez said he rarely goes that far, but sometimes, "You really need to get their attention."

    The canons of judicial ethics require judges to be calm, dignified and patient with all parties in court. But Martinez, who handles 400 to 500 misdemeanor cases weekly ranging from drunken driving to failure to ensure a child's school attendance, said the girl was disrespecting the courtroom.

    "To me, it's a sacred place, and therefore I demand that everybody respect it as such," Martinez said. "They don't need to respect me, but they need to respect the institution it represents."

    After the incident with the 13-year-old was reported in the Times, e-mails poured into the paper. The vast majority supported the judge. Many complained of kids with no respect for authority, and said they wished more judges took a harsh approach.

    Martinez has five children and 11 grandchildren, and as a legislator, he was chairman of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee. Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him to the bench in 1997. His term runs until 2005.

    Brian Gonzalez, a local defense attorney, said his clients sometimes find themselves on the wrong end of Martinez's "gruff, get-in-your-face" approach, and that the judge's manner rubs some lawyers the wrong way. But Gonzalez finds his rulings fair.

    "This is a guy with a street sense about what happens every day in Tampa," Gonzalez said. "He's not a guy who relies so much on book smarts as he does growing up in this community. He sympathizes a great deal with parents who have children who are going the wrong way."

    Pat Crosby, a social services worker with the county school system who handles truancy cases, applauds Martinez's tactics with the 13-year-old girl. Since the rebuke from the judge, Crosby said, the girl has been going to school.

    "She's very nervous about the fact that we're going back to court. She has to go back to tell him she has been going to school or she hasn't. It's significant," Crosby said. "He knew we brought her there for a reason. We wanted to get her attention."

    - Christopher Goffard can be reached at 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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