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Circuit judge ordered off bench

John Renke III is the 16th judge to be ruled unfit since 1970, but the first to be removed solely for campaign violations.

By JAMAL THALJI
Published May 26, 2006


No one disputes that John Renke III is a good circuit judge.

But the way he got on the Pinellas-Pasco bench makes him unfit to serve, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

He is the 16th judge ordered removed from the bench in Florida since 1970 but the first removed solely for campaign violations.

The ruling against Renke, 36, came in a harshly worded opinion that all but ends his 31/2 years of handling family law and probate in west Pasco. The court found a series of violations:

* "Flagrant misrepresentations" about his qualifications in his 2002 campaign, such as a brochure portraying Renke as an incumbent judge when he wasn't, with the slogan "a Judge With Our Values."

* Misrepresenting his experience as a lawyer. The court said Renke had "little or no actual trial or courtroom experience."

* Funding the race with an illegal $95,800 contribution - more than 90 percent of the campaign's financing - from his father, former state Rep. John Renke II, who enlisted the Republican Party's help in the nonpartisan campaign.

"In essence, Judge Renke and his cohorts created a fictitious candidate, funded his candidacy in violation of Florida's election laws and successfully perpetrated a fraud on the electorate in securing the candidate's election," the court said.

After hearing the news from his lawyer, Renke said he was greatly saddened by the decision and "apologetic that this entire process had to take place."

Renke has 15 days to file a motion for a rehearing. If the court rejects it, Renke would be removed immediately.

Renke said he sensed the court would rule the way it did from the pointed questions justices asked in April during oral arguments in Tallahassee.

"Analytically and rationally, one can be prepared," he said. "Emotionally, one can never be prepared for the personal and professional turmoil that results."

Declan Mansfield, the veteran lawyer Renke beat in 2002, declined to comment. Renke's father and former employer figured prominently in his son's campaign. He did not return calls for comment placed to his New Port Richey firm.

Renke's attorney, Scott Tozian, said it appeared the court used his client to send a message to judicial candidates. The court, he said, "seems determined to muzzle" them.

"You can just say 'I'm running for judge,' " Tozian said, "and that's all you can say."

The court said it rejected the Judicial Qualifications Commission's original sanctions for fines and reprimands because it warned against this kind of misconduct in 1997 and 2001.

JQC executive director Brooke Kennerly said the Renke case should send a message to candidates.

"We're getting into campaign season," she said, "and judges can now know what they can and can't do."

Tozian took solace in Justice Charles Wells' opinion, which concurs with the court's findings but dissents from removing Renke.

"I am uncertain what the standards are by which campaign misrepresentations rise to the level of fraud," Wells wrote, noting he could not find the word "fraud" in the JQC's findings. Wells also noted the JQC called Renke a "very good judge," and that he could not recall an instance when the court removed a judge "without a JQC recommendation to do so."

But the majority said that "it is not enough to point to Judge Renke's successes as a judge if he only attained that position through his own fraudulent and illegal campaign misconduct."

Tozian said his client hasn't decided what to do. Besides filing for a rehearing, Renke could ask a federal court to intervene. Tozian said the Florida Supreme Court addressed none of their concerns about Renke's First Amendment rights.

There's also nothing to stop Renke from running again, but Renke discounted that notion.

It's also possible, Tozian said, that Renke may simply accept his fate.

"I'm sure the judge is worn down from this process and may decide he doesn't want to do this," the lawyer said. "Let him make the call. I couldn't blame him if he was tired of the fight."

15 OTHER JUUDGES REMOVED IN 30 YEARS

The Florida Supreme Court has removed 15 other judges for misconduct since the Judicial Qualifications Commission was established 30 years ago. This does not include those who resigned before being disciplined or those removed because of disabilities.

1977: Broward Circuit Judge Stewart LaMotte. Used a state credit card to fly his daughter to and from college.

1979: Pensacola Circuit Judge Joseph Crowell. Abuse of power, including holding a man in contempt of court for unloading his truck in the judge's parking space.

1983: Hillsborough Circuit Judge Richard Leon. Perjury during a case-fixing investigation.

1986: Citrus County Judge Leonard Damron. Intimidated defendants into giving up their rights to a trial or lawyer.

1988: Broward County Judge Irwin Berkowitz. Trust account violations while he was a lawyer, lying to the JQC and campaign misconduct.

1992: 4th District Court of Appeal Judge Eugene Garrett. Shoplifting.

1993: Citrus County Judge Gary Graham. Abuse of power, including giving more jail time to defendants who complained about the fairness of the sentence.

1994: Pinellas County Judge Mary Jean McAllister. Sexually harassing her judicial assistant, ex parte communications with prosecutors, lying to the JQC.

1995: Volusia Circuit Judge Gail Graziano. Pressuring court officials to hire and promote her roommate.

1996: Broward County Judge June Johnson. Backdating traffic tickets.

1997: Hillsborough County Judge Elizabeth Lynn Hapner. Abandoning her law practice, neglecting her clients and lying to get an injunction against her estranged husband.

1997: Sarasota Circuit Judge Deborah Ford-Kaus. Billing for work she never performed, backdating court documents, lying to the JQC and failing to disclose a conflict of interest.

2000: Monroe Circuit Judge Steven P. Shea. Using his office to promote personal financial interests.

2001: Manatee County Judge Matt McMillan. Violating campaign ethics laws during 1998 campaign and setting bail in a DUI case in which he was a witness.

2005: Orange Circuit Judge James E. Henson. Improperly accepting a client in a criminal matter while still a county judge, telling client to flee the country to avoid prosecution.

Source: Times archives and wires.

Angie Drobnic Holan, news researcher

THE CHARGES AGAINST RENKE

Charges against Circuit Judge John Renke III include:

* Incorrectly called himself a judge on a campaign brochure before he was elected

* Falsely claimed to be chairman of a regional water district in the same brochure

* Falsely claimed the endorsement of a Clearwater firefighters group

* Overstated his experience as a hearing officer

* Claimed endorsements from public officials when they were in fact from Republican Party members

* Falsely claimed substantial trial experience

* Accepted improper campaign loans from his father and claimed the money was his

[Last modified May 28, 2006, 10:31:25]


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