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Judicial panel urges action against judge

John Renke III admitted to the panel that he had violated judicial election rules. He said the next time will be different.

Published May 1, 2004

NEW PORT RICHEY - In 2002 John Renke III, at age 33, became the youngest elected circuit court judge in Florida, elected to the Pasco-Pinellas bench with the help of his father, a longtime Republican leader.

But Thursday evening, the state Judicial Qualifications Commission recommended stern sanctions for Renke after he agreed that his campaign violated judicial election rules and misrepresented his experience and that of his opponent, Declan Mansfield.

His next campaign, Renke said Friday, will be different.

Asked if he would look to his father and other local Republican leaders for support in future, Renke said: "Given everything that's occurred, I'd expect there'd be some changes in the way things are handled. In terms of certain people, it's too soon to say. That's a lot of if's and hypotheticals."

In the 2002 race, Renke chose his father as his campaign manager. Renke's father, John Renke II, is a former Republican state representative who rose to the rank of house minority leader. Renke II has been a leader in the Pasco Republican party for two decades, currently serving as a state GOP committeeman.

The Renke campaign focused on Pinellas County and carried it by more than 10,000 votes. He and Mansfield split the vote in Pasco County.

The JQC, which is responsible for investigating judicial misconduct, said Renke "or close family members" participated in partisan political activities and campaigned on his behalf as a member of a political party.

Judicial rules call for elections to be nonpartisan.

At an April 11 hearing in Miami, Renke agreed with a JQC panel to those charges and that he had misrepresented his experience as well as that of Mansfield.

The JQC said Renke should be fined $20,000 and receive a public reprimand and a one-month unpaid suspension. The Supreme Court has to approve that punishment. Brook Kennerly, the executive director of the JQC, said there was no time frame for that ruling. But the court usually upholds the commission's recommended sanctions, she added.

Renke said he would not delve into the details of his case until the Supreme Court issues its decision. After that, he said, he will talk openly about the case.

However, Renke did say that he stipulated to the charges because he was concerned that an ongoing case before the JQC would hamper his current duties on the bench.

"With the caseload in family law in Pasco County, I felt I needed to be here," Renke said.

"No matter what way it goes you have to take time away," he added. "It's a pragmatic concern."

Renke, now 34, presides over cases involving domestic violence, guardianships, foreclosures and wills.

Mansfield did not return phone calls seeking comment. But his chief political consultant, Mary Repper, called the JQC's decision "harsh and merited."

"Declan Mansfield ran a credible campaign and has nothing to be ashamed of. But the judge will have a lot of explaining to do to the voters in four years."

Renke will face tough competition in the next race, she added. "The sharks are in the water and this guy is going to feel them."

In addition to the $20,000 fine, Renke stands to lose $11,000 in a month's lost wages. He would also have to stand silently and face the Supreme Court as it reprimands him. That lasts no more than 15 minutes, Kennerly said, but the humiliation can last longer, as the proceedings are televised and taped to show at conferences.

The JQC has dealt with an increasing number of campaign violations in recent years as judicial races veer into partisan territory.

These decisions show that the JQC is enforcing the rules prohibiting openly political campaigns, Kennerly said.

The JQC recommended a public reprimand for Circuit Judge Carven Angel of Ocala after it found that he had participated in partisan political activity.

For Escambia County Judge Patricia Kinsey, the JQC recommended a $50,000 fine and public reprimand.

And the state Supreme Court upheld the JQC's recommendation that it remove Manatee County Judge Matthew McMillan from the bench for misrepresenting his opponent's record during a campaign.

In contrast, former Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Charles Cope received a public reprimand after the JQC found him guilty of public intoxication and inappropriate intimate contact with a woman. Cope admitted he was intoxicated during an April 2001 judicial conference in California. Two women accused Cope of trying to break into their hotel room with a stolen key. One of the women said Cope made sexual advances at her earlier that night.

[Last modified May 1, 2004, 01:10:35]

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