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Judge in Glades case removed

Comments to the media showed bias, the ruling says. That ends 15 years of him overseeing Everglades restoration.

By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published September 24, 2003

For 15 years, one federal judge oversaw the cleanup of the Everglades. He pored over documents, listened to legal arguments, sifted through scientific studies. He even toured the River of Grass by airboat.

But on Tuesday U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler was removed from the Everglades case, not for misbehaving in court or making outrageous rulings.

South Florida's chief judge removed him for talking to reporters.

Hoeveler's comments this spring blasting Gov. Jeb Bush, the Legislature, the sugar industry and the South Florida Water Management District "demonstrate an objective doubt as to Judge Hoeveler's continued impartiality," wrote Chief Judge William Zloch.

Contacted at home, Hoeveler at first declined to comment because, "I may say something that is impermissible."

But then Hoeveler expressed disappointment.

"I feel for the Everglades," said Hoeveler, 81. "I feel protective of it. But I don't think that's a reason to get me off the case."

Hoeveler pointed out that only U.S. Sugar and a subsidiary of Flo-Sun Sugar pushed for his ouster. Everyone else involved in the complex lawsuit over Everglades water pollution - the state Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Justice Department, the Miccosukee Indian Tribe and environmental groups - wanted him to stay.

"The state, the feds, the Indians and the conservation groups all filed briefs on my behalf," Hoeveler said, "but Judge Zloch didn't see anything in them."

Environmental advocates praised the tough-talking Hoeveler and criticized the sugar companies for pushing him off the case.

Dexter Lehtinen, who filed the case in 1988 as U.S. attorney and has stayed on it representing the Miccosukees, contended Hoeveler "may have violated this narrow rule, but he did it for the broader integrity of his life."

U.S. Sugar vice president Robert Coker said his company was "gratified" Zloch agreed that Hoeveler needed to go. The sugar industry respected Hoeveler, Coker said, so "it was a difficult decision to bring the motion."

Zloch let stand Hoeveler's most recent decision, which the sugar industry also challenged.

In that stinging May 9 order, Hoeveler said he would appoint a special master to ensure the state did what it promised to do in cleaning up phosphorus pollution. Before he could name the special master, though, the sugar companies accused him of bias.

They were incensed by his comments in the order blasting the Legislature for passing a sugar-backed bill, which he called "clearly defective," that delayed the deadline for the South Florida Water Management District to clean up the pollution.

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times a few days later, Hoeveler compared the appointment to posting a guard to protect the Everglades.

"When the governor signs this bill - and he will, I think, sign it - the South Florida Water Management District has got to be watched," Hoeveler said. He said Bush, who signed the bill, "is a good man and he means well. ... But I'm afraid he fell into the hands of those who don't like the Everglades."

Zloch's ruling singled out those two statements as reason to oust Hoeveler: "A reasonable interpretation of this statement is that Judge Hoeveler does not trust the South Florida Water Management District."

Taken together with other statements he made, Zloch wrote, Hoeveler gave the appearance of being biased against the sugar companies or anyone else supporting the bill that Bush signed.

Zloch also pointed out another quote from that same interview, in which Hoeveler told the Times that his friends and neighbors were cheering him on in his scathing comments about the state's politicians: "Everyone I meet comments, "Do it! Do it! Do it!"'

That gave the appearance that "extrajudicial sources may have influenced Judge Hoeveler" in his conduct of the case, Zloch wrote. By merely talking to reporters from the Times, the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and other publications, Hoeveler was being influenced "as these interviews are not merely one-way conversations," Zloch wrote.

Unlike Hoeveler, Zloch, 59, does not speak to reporters.

In 1999, the Fort Lauderdale native, who gained fame as a Notre Dame quarterback, blocked the owners of a Web site from posting financial disclosure statements of every federal judge. When a reporter called with questions, an assistant responded: "Judge Zloch asked me to call you and thank you very much and to tell you that he has not granted a formal interview since the 1965 Notre Dame-Miami game." (The teams played to a scoreless tie.)

Zloch was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan, even though he was a Democrat.

The case was reassigned late Tuesday to U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno and U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert L. Dube.

"I pity the judge that gets it," Hoeveler said Tuesday. Being ousted from such a complex and bitterly fought case is something of a relief, he said: "I feel like a lot of weight has been taken off my shoulders."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.

[Last modified September 24, 2003, 01:34:33]


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