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The Renke in the robe

A politician's son, once an unknown commodity in the courtroom, presides with openness and empathy.

By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003

[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge John Renke III discusses the new experience of presiding over domestic violence hearings with bailiff William Flehigan.
John Renke.

In Pasco County, people associate the name with bulldog politics. Conservative ideology. Power-brokering.

The image may not bring to mind attributes like empathy and impartiality. Modesty and tranquility. Openness. Yet they also describe John Renke.

Not the John Renke best known as a three-term state representative who rose to become the Republican Party's minority leader in Tallahassee. The other John Renke. The politician's son.

Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge John Renke III.

Just 33 years old, he is the youngest circuit judge in Florida. Renke was elected last September in a bitterly contested race, his long-shot bid propelled by his father's deep connections and a clever campaign strategy.

He took the bench in January as an unknown commodity. In the first seven years of his legal career, he rarely ventured into the same New Port Richey courthouse where he now rules on family law cases, domestic violence injunctions and mortgage foreclosures.

Instead, he was a behind-the scenes attorney at his father's law office. He spent his time intoxicated by what he calls "theoretical enterprise" -- preparing complex cases on the cutting edge of property, contracts and constitutional law.

Now, newly entrusted with the responsibility of meting out justice, Renke finds himself squarely in the public spotlight. He knows the perception is out there: That he isn't ready for this, doesn't deserve it, and only got here because of his father. That he's probably just a chip off the old block.

But it would be wrong to assume Judge Renke is just a junior version of his 57-year-old father.

In fact, say those who know him best, if Renke takes after anybody, it is his mother, Margaret.

"The empathy comes from her," said his sister, Christina Mendoza, who's also a lawyer. "That's why he approaches the world with such openness and curiosity. He has a real connection with people."

State Sen. Mike Fasano, a longtime friend of the Renke family, said: "John Jr. is not his father's son. He is much more like his mother, very laid back . . . He doesn't take things personally.

"He will make a great judge," Fasano said. "He's a great listener who takes time to deliberate. He won't just react."

* * *

The law brought the Renkes to Florida. John Renke III was just a fourth-grader when his father, then a lawyer in Detroit, came to Florida to take a deposition. He left an ice storm in Michigan and hours later stepped off the plane into the warm Florida sunshine. The Michigan winter couldn't compete with 78 degrees.

The family moved to New Port Richey.

John Renke II built a successful civil practice in town and became active in local Republican circles. In 1984, he ran for the state House and won.

As the father moved quickly up through the Republican ranks in Tallahassee, the son was growing into a well-rounded teen at Ridgewood High School. He excelled in the classroom and on the athletic field, lettering in football, soccer and tennis. He once played a singles match against Jim Courier. He played guitar in a band. And he met a California girl named Michelle Paski, who would later become his wife.

He went on to the University of Florida, where he studied history, archaeology, French literature. These days, when he reads a French novel, he doesn't bother with the translation. He reads it in the original French.

Heand Michelle got married at Disney World. After graduation, they moved to Tallahassee, where Renke had been accepted to law school at Florida State University.

Most law students spend all their time studying. Renke did plenty of that, enough to graduate with honors. But he had another responsibility in law school: In his second year, he and Michelle had their first child, Ian. A daughter, Hannah, would follow three years later.

Renke said he never really considered joining a large firm, where young lawyers make big bucks but pay a heavy price. He didn't want to work 80 hours a week, researching cases in a library and competing against other ambitious lawyers to see who would make partner. The money wasn't that important.

So after he graduated from law school in 1995, he went to work for his father's small firm. There he'd work for days, even weeks, on a single brief, turning out 50 pages of complex legal arguments. He focused on the intellectual side of practicing law, not the art of courtroom rhetoric. He didn't fraternize with other lawyers at the courthouse.

"I enjoyed the mental exercise," he said, "coming up with a cogent argument."

* * *

Working for his father gave Renke the flexibility to spend time with his family. Donning the black robe of the judiciary hasn't changed that.
[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Renke coaches his son's soccer game in February.
He still coaches his son's soccer team, still takes the family to Bob Evans for dinner after games, still gets out his boat on weekends and goes fishing with the kids in the gulf.

A recent night found Renke slouched on a couch in his living room, his wife beside him and the family's two black Labrador retrievers, Wyatt and Winnie, stretched out on the floor. Ian, 9, watched a European soccer match on television.

The smell of dinner -- takeout from Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q -- filled the house. Renke's acoustic guitar rested in a stand in the living room, next to a computer he built himself. A workbench in the garage was covered with parts for another computer.

Renke makes $133,250 as a judge, more than twice the yearly salary he earned working for his father. But he still lives in the same three-bedroom house in River Ridge, still drives the same blue 1992 Lincoln Continental he inherited from a great aunt. He still wears the same wrinkled khaki pants to work. And he still eats whatever Michelle packs him for lunch; he gets the same thing as the kids, usually a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, a piece of fruit and a mint.

"He's the same old guy," said Michelle, who still teaches at Genesis Preparatory School.

* * *

Last summer, the Renkes nearly bought a bigger house. Thanks to a couple of big settlements the firm had just won, the family could have afforded the house Michelle already had picked out.

Or John could run for judge.

Over dinner at Applebee's, John and Michelle weighed their options. John wavered, so Michelle cast the deciding vote. The new house could wait.

John entered the race and loaned himself $95,000 to finance his campaign.

The circumstances were perfect for a run for office. The only other candidate in the race, Declan Mansfield, was a Pasco lawyer. That was significant because voters in both Pinellas and Pasco decide elections for local circuit judgeships.

Mansfield is a well-known attorney in Pasco, but Renke figured he could win by carrying Pinellas. To accomplish that, he knew he needed to outwork Mansfield in Pinellas. He would also rely on a savvy campaign manager -- his father -- to help shoulder the workload. The elder Renke may be a decade removed from the Legislature, but as the elected Republican committeeman in Pasco, he's still heavily involved in politics. His name and influence undoubtedly brought in more than a few votes.

Judicial canons prohibit candidates from aligning themselves with political parties. Renke III had to step down from the Pasco Republican Executive Committee when he filed to run. He also resigned from the governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, a post to which he was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999.

Family members, on the other hand, are not bound by the same strict rules that govern candidates.

On election night, Renke split the Pasco vote with Mansfield.

He carried Pinellas by more than 10,000 votes.

* * *

The grumbling from local lawyers began immediately. There was talk of politics soiling the image of an impartial judiciary. Would politics affect the new judge's decisions?

Even at judge's school in Tallahassee, Renke had to answer questions about the campaign.

His first day at the school, in early January, he presided over a mock trial, designed to test the ability of new judges to deal with difficult courtroom situations. Sitting judges, including one from Pinellas, acted the parts of attorneys, witnesses, jurors.

Before the trial began, a man playing a criminal defense lawyer stood up and challenged Renke. He was concerned, he said, by Renke's campaign literature drawing attention to Mansfield's specialty as a criminal defense lawyer.

"It was kind of hinted or suggested that you've never represented criminal defendants," he said, "and I just want some assurance from you that you can be fair to me and my client."

Renke replied calmly, "Absolutely, I can assure you that I have impartiality in my heart and my mind."

The next week, Renke took the bench for the first time. Ever since, the grumbling from local attorneys has started to die down.

Maybe it has something to do with Renke's accommodating, easy-mannered style. He is articulate and prone to philosophical musings, but he is not arrogant. He doesn't have "robe-itis" -- the term used to describe judges who acquire a holier-than-thou attitude. He doesn't even wear his robe when conducting hearings in his chambers. He never raises his voice, even when admonishing litigants. He projects a calmness that sets people at ease. He's not afraid to ask advice from attorneys, bailiffs, court clerks, even other judges.

"I want to earn people's respect," he said. "And that means treating people with respect."

One day in January, during a full calendar of domestic violence hearings, his ruling brought a man to tears. The ruling meant the man, who was accused of striking his girlfriend, could not see his son.

"I want to see my son!" the man shouted in between sobs. "Please don't do this."

Other judges, facing such a busy docket, may have had the man escorted from the courtroom. Renke started asking more questions.

"I want to do what's best for the child," Renke said. A few minutes later, Renke found a solution acceptable to both the man and his girlfriend.

"I wish you both well," the judge said.

* * *

If lawyers still have questions about him, Renke says they don't show it in his presence.

"People may still harbor their beliefs," he said. "And that's fine. There's nothing I can do about it. You can either choose to be constructive or destructive."

As for people who assume he's just like his father, or that he's some kind of puppet for the GOP, Renke says, "There are always going to be detractors. But not everybody is that naive. They realize that people are individuals. I give the general public a little more credit."

And if people want to equate him with his father, Renke isn't concerned. He doesn't need to prove he's a different man.

"I'm proud of everything my father has done," he said. "He's my father. I'm never going to get away from that. And I don't want to. I was blessed to have a father like him."

Renke said he wants to win people over with his work on the bench. Then, he said, "People may not think I'm the beast they envisioned. I'm not just a creature of someone else's making."

* * *

The elder John Renke is a gifted, forceful public speaker. He has made a living arguing high-stakes cases in state and federal courtrooms. He has debated Florida's most pressing issues on the floor of the state House. But when it came time to introduce his son at an investiture ceremony last month, emotion got the best of him. Tears welled in his eyes as he put on his glasses and began, softly. His voice cracked.

"He's the best son a man could ever have."

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