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Did judges' bans exceed authority?

Hillsborough's public defender comes to the defense of two of her attorneys.

Published July 22, 2006

TAMPA - In a seven-page letter this week to the chief judge, Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt said two county judges overstepped their authority by barring two attorneys in her office from their courtrooms.

Holt suggested that if either judge truly thought the attorneys had been disrespectful, they should have held them in contempt.

"I am no longer in a position where I can countenance or turn a blind eye to 'orders' which are without apparent legal basis and which so substantially affect both the administration of my office and the overall morale of my employees," Holt wrote to Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr.

The letter also went to county judges Lawrence M. Lefler and Christine K. Vogel, who on separate occasions each verbally banned an assistant public defender from practicing before them, according to Holt and court transcripts.

Lefler and Vogel declined to comment Friday.

Menendez told the St. Petersburg Times that he could not comment on the judges' actions because he wasn't present for either incident.

The chief judge provided his e-mail response to Holt, in which he said he was surprised by her letter's "argumentative and confrontational" tone about an issue he thought they previously remedied.

The first run-in happened a month or two ago, the letter said.

Cary High, an assistant public defender who has been a lawyer for little more than a year, filed a motion to suppress on behalf of a defendant.

The defendant, however, was no longer represented by the Public Defender's Office. Under Florida law, judges can remove the office from a misdemeanor case if the judge decides the defendant won't face jail time and therefore doesn't need an attorney.

Holt acknowledged that High filed the motion without specifically asking the judge to reappoint him as the attorney on the case.

Lefler said High "could not return to his courtroom in the future," the letter stated.

A court transcript sheds more light on the other case, which unraveled June 28 at the start of a jury trial for a man accused of violating a domestic violence injunction.

Annoyed with the defendant for showing up late two days in a row, Vogel threatened to hold him in contempt and told him to expect jail time for his sentence.

That prompted the man's attorneys to ask the judge to recuse herself from the trial, but she refused.

Jury selection began immediately, during which Vogel asked Assistant Public Defender Douglas Smith if he intended to file a written motion for her recusal. He said no, not realizing that his supervisor was drafting one.

After the jury was selected, another assistant public defender attempted to file the written motion. Vogel wasn't happy.

"Mr. Smith is not allowed in my division ever," she said, according to the transcript. "Mr. Smith will not appear in my courtroom."

"I didn't know, judge," Smith said, adding a few seconds later, "I just found out about it."

Cordel Batchelor, misdemeanor division chief for the Public Defender's Office, stepped in and explained that the attorneys hadn't wanted to interrupt the court proceedings.

"Judge, I just want to say respectfully that I had no idea that you had asked Mr. Smith anything about this motion," Batchelor said. "And I was very careful not to upset the court by making sure that we did ..."

"That's fine," Vogel interrupted. "If you made that choice, you can find another assistant public defender to assign out here."

Vogel granted the motion to recuse herself, but not without questioning the attorneys' professionalism and telling Assistant Public Defender Treveno Tarpley that she was "this close to not being in my division either" for wasting jurors' time.

In her letter, Holt said both judges should have taken corrective action in each particular case instead of issuing what appeared to be a permanent ban. She cited cases in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina that said only a state's highest court can impose such a broad sanction.

Holt said if Vogel doesn't hold Smith in contempt, the judge should rescind her order and personally apologize to Smith for "her overreaction to a situation that she helped create." Smith, Holt wrote, has submitted his resignation partly because of the situation with the judge.

"The 'truism' that 'everyone must follow and obey the law' applies to lawyers and judges alike," Holt said. "Respect begets respect."

In his response, Menendez said he was willing to discuss the issue further but added that his duties as chief judge do not include reviewing the decisions of other judges.

Holt disagreed.

"If he can't, we're not sure what there is to talk about," said her spokesman, John Skye. "Generally speaking, his letter just seems really nonresponsive to problems we have tried to address."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 813 226-3337 or

[Last modified July 22, 2006, 01:52:07]

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