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Quiet judge persists in Schiavo maelstrom

Circuit Judge George Greer, who is regularly reviled and travels with security, is not the man his critics might suspect.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published March 6, 2005


CLEARWATER - Some of the hundreds of e-mails and letters he gets call him a "murderer."

"Are you related to (Josef) Mengele, or just a student?" one man wrote, referring to the ruthless Nazi doctor.

An indignant woman who believed his decisions weren't Christian once called and asked if he thought he was going to heaven.

Deputies who fear for his safety escort him to and from work.

That's life these days for Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George W. Greer, who has ruled that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube could be removed, allowing her to die. Greer sits at the epicenter of the international debate over Schiavo's life, a judge who answers critics with the only rebuttal allowed by rules of judicial conduct:

Silence.

"The really difficult part of this job," Greer said, "is that you can't defend yourself."

The world knows so much about Schiavo's life, but little about the 63-year-old Greer.

A balding man whose voice has no trace of his native Brooklyn, he travels to unwind and jogs to stay fit. He has run two marathons, though the last was 20 years ago. Friends say his eyesight is awful. It's so bad, in fact, that he doesn't drive.

And Greer, vilified by many religious protesters, is a church regular. He also is a conservative Republican in a state whose conservative Republican governor tried to overturn one of Greer's orders.

"George is the religious right," said lawyer David Kurland, a longtime friend.

Friends say Greer's intellect is perfectly formed to withstand the very tempest he now faces. Always calm, not prone to mood swings or flares of temper, unerringly polite, he is not easily ruffled, they say.

But the criticisms sting, friends say. His relationship with his church, for example, has changed.

"He's been through a lot of storms in his life," said Mary Repper, a political consultant and friend. "This is just another one. George takes everything in stride."

Just don't ask Greer about his college housemate Jim Morrison, the legendary front man of the rock 'n' roll group the Doors.

Nobody took Morrison in stride, not even Greer.

* * *

When Greer came into adulthood in the 1960s, he was about as counterculture as Barry Goldwater, the presidential candidate he voted for in 1964. One of Greer's favorite bands is the Bee Gees.

His biggest brush then with nonconformity: being cited for underage drinking about the time he entered FSU and hunting without a license in 1959.

Greer, whose family moved to Dunedin when he was 4, spent 21/2 years at St. Petersburg Junior College before entering Florida State University in 1962 as a 20-year-old. He majored in marketing.

He moved to a house about a mile from the FSU campus with a friend and some students he didn't know. Greer described the house this way: "Jim Morrison and five normal people."

One Halloween, Greer recalled, Morrison greeted children out trick-or-treating at the front door completely naked. Morrison had lighter fluid in his mouth. He spit it out, touching a match to the fluid to create a roaring flame.

"The poor little kids ran screaming to their parents," Greer said.

The Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive by Jerry Hopkins and Daniel Sugerman, provides a description Greer won't contradict.

Morrison "drank their beers, ate their food, and wore their clothes without asking," the book said of Morrison's relationship with his housemates.

"He kept careful records of all his actions, and their reactions, writing in his journals as if he were an anthropologist and his housemates were his subjects. In less than three months' time, Jim had the household frantic. Everyone was living in a constant state of anxiety over what was going to happen next.

"It all blew up one night in December ... when Jim was playing Elvis too loud."

After one semester, the housemates asked Morrison to leave. He transferred to UCLA in California, where he found fame.

"He was a bright guy," Greer said. "He liked his tequila. All of us at one time or another had him on the floor with our fists raised."

Housemate Chris Kallivokas, now a Washington financial consultant, said Greer was the steady influence in a crazy house.

"George was stable, mature and structured," Kallivokas said. "He was an organized guy with a sort of balanced personality, very even-headed, not controversial, very solid. He went to class every day."

* * *

After graduating from FSU and earning a law degree from the University of Florida, Greer settled into a Clearwater practice, specializing in zoning and land use issues. He married, had twin boys, and divorced in the mid 1970s.

In 1984, he ran for Pinellas County Commission, running against the board's only Democrat. Greer won a narrow victory, campaigning on his opposition to building a Pinellas sports stadium that would eventually be built and is today Tropicana Field.

Greer, who would serve as commission chairman, won a second term to the commission unopposed, and looks back fondly to those political days.

"I think it prepared me to decide issues on their merits, and not on personalities," he said.

Greer looked to a judgeship as the pinnacle of a lawyer's career, and ran for an open seat. He won it, unopposed, in 1992.

"I don't think he had any real enemies," said Kurland, the lawyer who is a friend and once roomed with the judge in the 1970s. "He has a political streak in him. He understands political survival."

One of the lowest points in Greer's career as a judge came in 1998, when he denied an injunction for a wife seeking protection from her husband. He note d that the woman had not liste d any acts of violence by the man.

Days later, the husband stabbed her to death.

Greer said he followed the law, and the woman's co-workers protested outside the courthouse.

"As a judge, there's always the fear that you're going to miss something and somebody is going to get hurt," Greer said. "It happens in all cases. When you make those kind of decisions, there's very little you can do to be 100 percent certain because you never have 100 percent of the facts."

Soon enough, protesters in much greater number would be asking Greer to prolong the life of a woman named Terri Schiavo.

* * *

After a 2000 trial, Greer heard testimony about statements Schiavo made before she collapsed in 1990 indicating, the judge ruled, that she did not want to live by artificial means. Greer decided she was in a persistent vegetative state and that her feeding tube should be removed.

Schiavo's parents disagree, and have waged a bitter court fight since to reverse Greer. So far, they have failed.

But the case has become an international media phenomenon, and Greer has been assailed by many.

"Judge Greer's performance has been so deficient that he should be removed from the case forthwith, if not impeached," Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a nonpartisan public policy think tank, wrote in an article.

In 2003, attorney Pat Anderson, representing Schiavo's parents, accused Greer of being biased.

"I feel that if Terri called you from hospice, you'd try to talk her into giving up and dying," Anderson said. "I feel that you're that committed to her death."

She asked him to step down - the fourth time Greer had been asked to disqualify himself from the case. Greer refused, although it would have been an easy escape.

"Four of the worst decisions I ever made," Greer later joked.

Greer is a Southern Baptist who attended Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater. But his attendance faltered after a Baptist publication the church supported became highly critical of him, he said.

Greer, who said he had other unrelated problems with the church, said he explained to a deacon, "If I don't like what the St. Pete Times writes about me, my only recourse is to cancel my subscription." So he stopped his donations to the church, though he is still a member.

Last year, Greer drew his first opponent in any race for re-election. Protesters in the Schiavo case rallied around Jan Govan. But Greer easily defeated Govan.

For Greer, Schiavo is particularly difficult. He has always been easy with the media, giving some reporters his cell phone number. When someone asks a question, he answers it, though he is always careful not to talk about the merits of any case.

After one Schiavo hearing, he answered reporters' questions, only to see lawyers try to remove him from the case for it. Now, he measures his words, and even was reluctant to talk about his days with Morrison.

While friends say Greer's personality has largely remained unaffected, they do note some small differences from the pressures of the case.

"I think he's a little quieter, a little more reserved, not around friends but around other folks," said Ed Armstrong, a Clearwater lawyer and close friend. "I don't think he has enjoyed being in the spotlight."

Neither Armstrong nor Greer will discuss one thing few know about Greer: In 2002, the judge offered to donate one of his kidneys to Armstrong, who needed a transplant. Armstrong found another donor. "If the critics knew the man, they wouldn't say some of the things they do about him," Armstrong said.

Greer said he is sometimes baffled by the more hateful criticism. He said his faith has not been shaken.

"What's so exasperating is that my faith is based on forgiveness because that's what God did," Greer said. "When I see people in my faith being extremely judgmental, it's very disconcerting."

But he follows the law, he said. "There are no Ten Commandments out there," he said, pointing to his outer office.

"My oath is to follow the law, and if I can't follow the law, I need to step down," he said.

Critics who condemn him in the religious press, he said, "have nothing to do with my relationship with God. They can't affect it."

He accepts the security precautions, Greer said, as a necessary inconvenience. But he acknowledges that his wife worries.

"I can't dwell on it. I'm not going to do anything stupid. But I'm not going to dig a hole and crawl into it. ... This isn't Colombia. This isn't drug lords terrorizing the judiciary. It's America."

He realizes that whatever his accomplishments, he will always be remembered for the Schiavo case.

And Greer's answer to the indignant protester who called asking if he thought he was going to heaven: yes.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

GEORGE W. GREER

AGE: 63

FAMILY: Married to his second wife for about 20 years. Father of twin boys, now adults.

EDUCATION: Associate's degree, St. Petersburg Junior College, 1962; bachelor's degree, Florida State University, 1964; law degree, University of Florida College of Law, 1966.

PROFESSIONAL: Solo practitioner in Clearwater, 1969-1992; county commissioner, 1984-1992; elected Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge in 1992, re-elected in 1998 and again in 2004. Greer says he will retire after his six-year term finishes. Currently serves in probate division, which handles wills, estates and guardianships.

PERSONAL: Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up in Dunedin, where he says he pitched the first no-hitter in history of Dunedin Little League as a 12-year-old; hobbies include running and traveling. He owns a Yorkshire terrier named Mr. Bailey.