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Retiring judge sees travel in his future

Maynard Swanson embraced his time on the bench, but after 29 years he's ready to go. He has things to do and places to see.

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 29, 2002

DADE CITY -- After 29 years on the bench, both circuit and county, Circuit Judge Maynard Swanson hangs up his robe Monday.

A career he began as a liberal lawyer fighting the civil rights battles of the 1960s ends with a civil hearing in his Dade City chambers.

Swanson's judicial career started when he rose to a Pinellas County judgeship in 1973. After winning his re-election to the county bench, he was appointed to the circuit bench in 1977.

He held the Circuit 6, Group 26 seat until this year, retiring at age 67 for a chance to slow down and travel through his adopted home state, planning to visit the county courthouse in each of Florida's 67 counties.

In a circuit that extends from the southern tip of Pinellas to the eastern corner of Pasco, Swanson will be replaced on the bench by Linda Babb, a prosecutor who has tried dozens of cases before him over the years.

"I cannot guarantee I will come back as a senior judge," Swanson told a crowd of well-wishers at a retirement ceremony this month. "I have a very qualified person replacing me."

Looking back, Swanson said that despite the perception that he is a liberal at heart, he has always considered himself someone eager to pursue what is just and fair rather than a cause or ideal.

Swanson was born in Moline, Ill., and attended Grinnell College in Iowa before heading to North Carolina and law school at Duke University.

At Duke, he was inspired by a sit-in during the racially charged civil rights struggle in the late 1950s. Afraid of falling further from the dean's favor, Swanson said he stood on the sidelines as others he knew actively fought segregation.

But he said he didn't forget what he saw, and when he graduated in 1960, he left determined to become part of the fight.

He moved to Florida and joined the American Civil Liberties Union. He fought segregation, he counseled draft objectors and tackled free speech issues, became a vocal spokesman for civil rights, at times stepping on toes.

"I was never what you would call a great lawyer," he said. "But I was doing what I felt was right."

Swanson said he embraced his time on the bench as a challenge. He knew he would make mistakes, but he tried to be fair.

Looking back, he has one regret.

He can't even recall the name, but he remembers the case -- more than 20 years ago -- where a killer offered to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty. The killer might have been insane, Swanson said. But he accepted the plea anyway, maybe tainted by the vicious nature of the crime. Although the man is dead now, Swanson still wonders if he should have accepted the plea or allowed a jury to hear the case.

The state of the law now, he said, has become mired in politics. Public pressure led to legislative sentencing guidelines that eliminate a judge's discretion, he said.

Not all cases and crimes fit a mold, he said.

"There's less and less faith in the honesty and sound judgment of the judges," he said. "More and more, judges are being used almost as computers."

But Swanson has been more than a computer.

At a roast in his honor, attorneys recalled the way his demeanor changes at sentencings and his voice booms across the courtroom.

This year, he told a killer he was sending him to death row and said the murder was like the "exploits of the notorious killers of old." At another sentencing, he likened a killer to a "sadistic torturer of old."

Lecturing another convict at sentencing, he told the woman, "You became the lynch mob . . . . You became all of the people we have condemned in history for taking the law into their own hands."

He also admits he is a committed doodler.

That didn't escape the eyes of the attorneys who practiced before him either.

Attorney Charles Waller, at the roast, produced a collection of pages covered in scribblings. The crowd roared with laughter at what appeared to be an obvious exaggeration.

Actually, Swanson said, the pages were real.

"I don't do well taking notes," he said. "But I like to keep my hands busy."

Swanson said he's going to take a month or two off, then begin his travels. He has art museums and state parks to see and courthouses to visit.

"I decided to retire, and made that announcement, before the first person asked me, 'When are you going to retire?' " Swanson said at his farewell party.

Privately, he noted: "I've had a good trip. On the whole, it's been good."

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