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Renke asks state highcourt to rehear his case

Circuit Judge John Renke III wants the court to reverse its May 25 decision to strip him of his judicial office.

Published June 10, 2006

NEW PORT RICHEY - Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge John Renke III took one more shot at staying on the bench Friday, aiming right at those who want him gone: the Florida Supreme Court.

It was his last shot.

The state's highest court decided removal was the best punishment for Renke, whom justices deemed unfit to serve in a scathing May 25 opinion that said he "perpetrated a fraud on the electorate" by misrepresenting his experience and using an illegal $95,800 loan in his 2002 campaign.

Friday was the deadline for Renke to file a motion to rehear the case.

If the court rejects his request, the 36-year-old judge would be immediately stripped of his judicial powers. By midnight of the day the motion is rejected, Renke would be removed from the state payroll, from which he still draws an annual $139,497 salary.

He would become the 16th judge removed from Florida's bench since 1970, the first solely for campaign violations.

"The court occasionally grants rehearings," said Florida Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters. "But it's not that often."

There is no timetable for the court to make its decision. If it rules against the embattled judge again, Renke will give up the fight, said his attorney, Scott Tozian.

"There are options," Tozian said. "But I don't think we're going to exercise them."

Renke's camp had contemplated asking a federal judge to intervene to defend First Amendment rights the judge exercised in his campaign for the bench.

His freedom of speech was ignored by the Florida Supreme Court, according to Renke's motion on Friday, when it ordered him off the bench.

"The court's apparent finding that Judge Renke's campaign statements amount to 'fraud' is clearly intended to regulate and limit the content of political speech," the motion says.

But the motion doesn't address the specific "flagrant misrepresentations" the court found Renke made, such as a brochure that portrayed him as an incumbent judge and an experienced trial lawyer.

He wasn't a sitting judge, the court said, and had "little or no actual trial or courtroom experience."

Yet Renke went on to become a "very good judge," according to the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The JQC lodged the initial charges against Renke, but recommended that he be allowed to stay on the bench - a recommendation the Florida Supreme Court rejected.

The JQC would not comment Friday. Neither would Renke, his lawyer said.

In his motion the judge also questions the court's basis for removing him. Florida law says a judge can be removed from the bench only for "present unfitness to hold office." The Florida Supreme Court decided Renke was unfit as a judge because of his 2002 campaign, the motion argued, which doesn't mean he's unfit to serve today. Even the JQC believes he has done a good job since, the motion said.

"I do believe his present fitness is the issue," Tozian said. "That's what the law says."

The motion also asked the court to "remove the finding of fraud," noting that was not a charge leveled against him by the JQC.

And it challenges the court's understanding of the $95,800 Renke used for his campaign. The money was not an illegal loan but legitimate payment from the law firm of his father, former state Rep. John Renke II, who got the Republican Party to help his son in the nonpartisan campaign.

If the court accepts Renke's rehearing motion, the justices could ask for more legal briefings and schedule more oral arguments in Tallahassee.

The Florida Supreme Court's decision has already affected Renke's workload of family law and probate cases in west Pasco. Since the court's May 25 decision, Renke has been reprioritizing cases, moving more timely court matters up on his calendar for completion, according to Ron Stuart, a spokesman for the 6th Judicial Circuit.

"By mutual decision" with the circuit, Stuart said, Renke handed off his courtroom duties in domestic violence court to other judges this week.

The 6th Judicial Circuit is also prepared for Renke's removal, Stuart said.

"If there's a vacancy, we will handle it the way we always do," he said, "with senior judges handling it and other judges doubling up."

Renke's calendar is cleared for next week. He had been scheduled to attend a circuit judges' conference. His lawyer doubted he would attend.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 10, 2006, 07:47:17]

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