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    Effort to open judicial inquiries moves forward

    But the bill, passed by the Judicial Oversight Committee, is opposed by judges and others.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 22, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- After a scandal involving a Hillsborough judge, some state legislators want to open up the hundreds of secret complaints and investigations of wrongdoing filed each year against Florida judges.

    The move is designed to pressure the state agency that regulates judges to be more aggressive in its inquiries and more accountable to the public.

    Rep. Larry Crow, R-Palm Harbor, pushed the proposal after the Judicial Qualifications Commission decided to give Hillsborough Judge Robert Bonanno a reprimand last year over allegations of a courthouse affair.

    The bill, which passed through Crow's Judicial Oversight Committee on Thursday, faces strong opposition by the commission and judges.

    "The damage you are doing to the process is unimaginable," Judge James Wolf, chairman of the commission and a judge on the 1st District Court of Appeal. "I think it's a bad bill."

    If the bill passes this legislative session, voters would be asked in November to approve the measure. But the proposal leaves the door open for the Legislature to enact public records exemptions next year before the law goes into effect on July 2003.

    About 500 complaints are made to the commission each year. Only about a dozen of them result in formal charges being filed against a judge.

    The proposal would allow the public to see all cases after the commission determines whether it will press charges against a judge -- regardless of whether charges are filed.

    "I feel comfortable saying that after the fact, here's why we made the decision we did," Rep. John Seiler, D-Wilton Manors said. "Perhaps, it will better the public's perception."

    Wolf and other judges worry that victims and witnesses would be less likely to file complaints if the proceedings were open and that the reputation of judges might be blemished by unfounded allegations.

    Manuel Menendez Jr., chief judge at the Hillsborough County courthouse, said he fears newspapers would obtain and publish even wild and baseless allegations against judges.

    "There are folks that are going to read it that may think there is something to it," he said. "I think you undermine the public's faith in the judiciary."

    Legislators ought to give judges the ability to sue complainants for libel and slander, a right they don't have now, if anybody can say anything about a judge, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada said.

    "If you're going to open season on me, give me an opportunity to protect my reputation," he said.

    However, Quesada believes the current system is a better alternative. He said that if you put people in the position of having to prove their allegations -- or face the legal wrath of an angry judge -- then it would have a chilling effect on people who may suspect, but cannot prove, a problem.

    Crow, who describes the commission as broken, originally proposed opening all complaints as soon as they were filed, but the committee rejected the bill last week. He said his proposal will prevent the House from impeaching judges as it did last year with two Tampa Bay judges, including Bonanno.

    Scott Tozian, the lawyer who represents Hillsborough Circuit Judge Cynthia Holloway in her ongoing battle with the commission, said he saw no downside to opening the complaints to public scrutiny. Complaints to the Florida Bar about lawyers, he noted, are eventually opened to the public even if the Bar dismisses the complaints.

    The commission claims Holloway misused her position by interfering in a child custody case and other matters, but Tozian argues the panel has targeted the judge unfairly and cannot police its own misconduct.

    "(Having) everything out in the open will make them more mindful of how they do things and what they ultimately do," Tozian said.

    -- Staff writers Christopher Goffard and Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report.

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