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Judicial comment sets Crist apart

His praise for the Schiavo case's judges wins him the ire of activists and contrasts him with his rival.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
Published July 31, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - It was one of the shortest speeches of Charlie Crist's career, but as a campaign for governor unfolds, it may prove to be one of the most memorable.

Two weeks ago, the Republican attorney general and candidate for governor gave a late-night speech to a roomful of lawyers in Miami where he referred to the judges in the Terri Schiavo case as "heroes."

Crist insists he wasn't endorsing court rulings that prevented the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube from being reconnected, but critics view it differently. And by appearing to break his silence in the Schiavo case, Crist has sharpened the contrast between himself and Republican rival Tom Gallagher, who has said he favored government action to "prevent Terri's starvation."

At the dinner in Miami, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer and U.S. District Judge James Whittemore of Tampa were honored as jurists of the year by the Florida chapter of ABOTA, the American Board of Trial Advocates. The group champions judicial independence and its members are lawyers who represent both plaintiffs and defendants.

Greer is the judge who ordered Schiavo's feeding tube removed, rejecting a subpoena from Congress and pleas from Gov. Jeb Bush, and Whittemore also denied emergency requests to reinsert the tube in the weeks before Schiavo died March 31. Both men's decisions were later upheld by higher courts, and both were praised and vilified by opposing sides of the emotionally charged end-of-life case.

Crist said he was "proud" of both judges.

"You are heroes to all of us, and your defense of the judiciary and what is right is beyond admirable," Crist was quoted in the Daily Business Review, a Miami newspaper that provided the only news account of the July 15 event at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.

In an interview, Crist did not dispute the quotations. Nor did he offer a view of whether he agreed with their decisions. Rather, he said, he praised them for fulfilling their constitutional duty to provide checks and balances against the other two branches of government.

"I try to say nice things about judges. I'm sure I was complimentary," said Crist, who as the state's chief legal officer often speaks at bar-related events. "I didn't talk about any specific case. ... It's important that those checks and balances exist. Our system of government needs to have that."

Crist's comments have resonated far beyond the Biltmore.

"Judge Greer is a poster child for everything that's wrong with the judiciary," said Gary Cass, executive director of the Center for Reclaiming America, a grass roots Christian political group in Fort Lauderdale that lists "sanctity of life" as one of its priorities and plans to form a political action committee.

"For Charlie Crist to hold that up as an example of good judicial practice concerns me," Cass said. "I think it was a mistake for Charlie to say that. I don't know how anybody can be happy about a woman being deprived food and water."

Rep. Dennis Baxley, the Republican from Ocala who sponsored legislation last spring to force the tube to be reconnected, said Crist's speech was revealing.

"I think it is one of those very important moments for us to know where he (Crist) stands," Baxley said. "I truly believe there's a lot of people out there who were sensitive to this case who are going to find those comments, and that association, very instructive. I'm understanding where people line up on this."

Baxley said that while Crist was "conspicuously absent" from the Schiavo debate in the Legislature, Gallagher sent Baxley a personal letter of support last spring. While activists in the Schiavo debate take aim at Crist, his Republican rival Gallagher is not.

"Tom's made his position very clear in the past. There's really no comment we're going to make on that," said David Johnson, a Gallagher adviser.

Polls show a majority of Americans agreed with the judges' decisions to order the removal of Schiavo's tube, as her husband, Michael, said she wanted. By a greater margin, polls show people were opposed to Congress' intervention in the case.

But to those who view the long-running Schiavo saga as a test case of support for the sanctity of life - like abortion - Greer and Whittemore are "judicial activists" who starved a woman to death.

Many of those people can vote in the Republican primary for governor in September 2006. Crist's stand on the Schiavo case could prove to be an asset if he wins the GOP nomination and faces a Democrat. But one Republican strategist said the damage has been done.

"Schiavo killed the Republicans. They've lost the women's vote," said Matt Towery, an ex-Republican legislator who now runs an Atlanta media and polling firm. "It's one of those turning points that you just can't get away from."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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