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Babb wraps up long trek to bench

Looking ahead to foreign territory on the Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court, prosecutor Linda Babb says she's ready.

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2002


DADE CITY -- When the new year begins, Linda Babb will step to the other side of the bench.

Here comes the judge.

In November, Babb, 46, won the Pasco-Pinellas circuit judgeship being vacated by Maynard Swanson as he retires from the seat he has held since 1977. After 14 years prosecuting cases, Babb will take the bench at 8 a.m. Jan. 2, picking up Swanson's duties over civil court.

The move throws Babb into an area of law foreign to her, but she said she had never been one to shy from the unknown.

"Sure, it's a lot to learn," she said, reflecting on the job ahead. "But I look at it as a challenge, not as intimidating. I don't have to learn it all in one fell swoop."

Babb took a long road to the Circuit Court bench. The mother of two said she was used to doing things the hard way. She married while still in college, and she and her husband, Terry, juggled work and school.

Then, with two toddlers at home and a job, she tackled the work and expense of law school.

"We lived on (Van Camp's) Beanee Weenees," she said.

Raising a family, working and managing her diabetes, she took up marathon running.

Five years ago, when she realized Swanson would be retiring, she started saving for a run for his seat.

In addition to campaign donations, the campaign ended up costing $42,500 that she and her husband had saved by living frugally. She said it also gobbled up a year of her life, with campaigning starting early in the day and ending with dinner meetings late into the night as she shook hands from Dade City to south Pinellas.

"We didn't have any cars with less than 150,000 miles on them," Babb said.

Her own car, with more than 200,000 miles, lost its air conditioning heading into the summer.

And after all that, winning the seat in November's election might have been the easy part.

On Jan. 2, Babb will be thrown into civil court, an area of law where compromises, in-chambers hearings, motions and briefs often take place outside the courtroom she has grown accustomed to. She attended a statewide judicial conference last week, focusing on civil matters, and for the next two weeks, she said, she'll be studying rules of civil procedure.

The key for her, she said, will be to stay organized -- tough to do as ongoing office-swapping will leave her without a permanent home until February. She said she will try to learn in small bites.

"It will be like taking a class each time. Like taking a class in medical malpractice, and the final exam is the trial," she said.

Living in east Pasco County and serving in Dade City for the past nine years, Babb has also built working relationships and even strong friendships with some of the attorneys who will come before her while she's a judge.

"You have to set that aside," she said. "I think I can be fair. Personalities have to be set aside."

When annual judicial rotations place her over criminal court, Babb will be back in her element, but in one area, she will also have some personal experience.

Babb has admitted she smoked marijuana when she was at the University of South Florida in the 1970s. She said it was not something that would affect her rulings; the law remains the law. But she said she also understands the ongoing problems that drugs, and a booming addiction rate, are causing.

"It's touched every single one of us," she said. "Either we know someone or had our house burglarized or we're counseling someone or we see them in court."

There is no easy answer, she said. The law requires punishment, and she said she was determined to follow the law. Meanwhile, public treatment facilities are overwhelmed, and private ones are too expensive for those without insurance or money.

Without a way to attack the root cause, the justice system rolls ahead with punishment, she said.

"We have a lot of people who are economically based on people who are addicted," Babb said. "Me included. There's job security in crime."

As for her own use of marijuana, Babb said she was young, and the 1970s were a different time with different attitudes. The nation was not at war; the protests of the 1960s had passed. Highly addictive new drugs such as crack cocaine hadn't been introduced.

She said the marijuana use was in her distant past.

"I knew it was illegal when I did it. I knew I was going to get in trouble if I was caught," she said. "We had this little, brief period in time when we were truly immortal."

Sitting in her office as a prosecutor with eight working days to go, Babb said she was not nervous about the new job and the new responsibilities.

She said she was determined to put in the hours to learn what she has to, and she vowed to work hard to be fair and caring and to rule on the law as it is written.

If the task ahead is difficult, Babb said, she's ready.

"If you don't take chances, then you miss the chance," she said. "You have to dance. That's what life is about, giving it a try."

-- Chase Squires covers east Pasco courts. He can be reached at (352) 521-5757, ext. 27, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6108, then 27. His e-mail address is squires@sptimes.com .

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