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Judge's attorney questions ethics case

Circuit Judge John Renke III's attorney says officials can't prove Renke knew he was making false statements during his campaign.

Published August 16, 2005

Circuit Judge John Renke III's attorney attacked much of the ethics case against his client Monday, saying the Judicial Qualifications Commission could not prove the judge knowingly misled voters during his 2002 campaign.

The key word there is "knowingly."

Some of the judge's statements could potentially have misrepresented his experience if taken out of context, Renke attorney Scott Tozian said.

But the judicial governing body cannot prove Renke knew he was making false statements, he said.

And that's the evidence needed, federal judges recently ruled, to preserve the free debate that should be shared by both legislative and judicial campaigns alike.

"To be narrowly tailored," judges stated in Weaver vs. Bonner , an 11th Circuit ruling, "restrictions on candidate speech during political campaigns must be limited to false statements that are made with knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard as to whether the statement is false ... "

A final hearing on the allegations against Renke, 36, is scheduled for Sept. 6 in Clearwater. But Monday, Tozian moved for seven of the 10 charges to be dismissed.

The Tampa attorney could not be reached Monday evening. In his motions, he explained why Renke wasn't being deliberately inaccurate when he:

--Distributed a political mailer that read "John Renke, a judge with our values." What he meant was he would be "a judge with our values," with references to his legal practice making clear that he still was an attorney and not a sitting judge.

--Appeared in a photograph that may have implied he was chairman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The picture was meant to show Renke "on the job," serving as an ex officio chairman of the Coastal Rivers Basin Board, a regional Swiftmud subboard.

--Asserted he was "supported by our area's bravest" under a picture with some Clearwater firefighters. Renke meant he had the support of the particular firefighters in the photo, not any endorsement from a group representing all Clearwater firefighters.

--Claimed to have "real judicial experience as a hearing officer in hearing appeals from administrative law judges." As a member of Swiftmud's governing board, Renke participated in 23 appellate reviews of administrative hearing officer's orders.

--Referenced numerous public officials who endorsed his candidacy. The five people the JQC took issue with all were either precinct or state committee office holders in the Republican Party, which Renke contends makes them public officials.

--Interchanged "trial experience" with the more appropriate term "litigation experience." The misstatement was isolated and "merely negligent," Tozian said.

--Stated he had broader civil litigation experience than his opponent, Declan Mansfield. Testimony given by Mansfield during his deposition supported the statement, Tozian argued.

Whether Tozian's positions will hold water with the JQC remains to be seen. Michael Green, one of the attorneys prosecuting the case, could not be reached for comment Monday evening.

The 11th Circuit includes Florida, Georgia and Alabama, so the Weaver case would apply to the judicial canons observed by local judges.

Tozian didn't take a fresh stab Monday at three other charges against Renke, who presides over probate and family law cases at the New Port Richey courthouse. The JQC also has accused Renke of advertising himself as a member of the Republican Party, accepting $95,800 in illegal "loans" from his father and displaying a "cumulative" misconduct unbecoming of a judge.

The last two charges were added in February, seven months after the Florida Supreme Court rejected a proposed settlement that included a monthlong suspension, a $20,000 fine and a public reprimand.

--Colleen Jenkins covers courts in west Pasco County. She can be reached at 727 869-6236 or

[Last modified August 16, 2005, 01:29:18]

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