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Peers turn on judicial hopeful

The campaign's a vendetta, former staff members say. The Bar is filing formal complaints. It's all political, she says.

By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published August 24, 2006

TAMPA - Catherine W. Real vows to improve the public perception of the Hillsborough judiciary if she is elected a circuit judge.

But some colleagues say her own image is an issue.

Real, 59, is the only judicial candidate in Hillsborough facing possible sanctions with the Florida Bar, which has found probable cause in three instances that she violated the rules regulating lawyers.

She alienates judges and struggles to keep staff, according to a dozen former associates, clients and fellow family law attorneys interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times.

Former staff members said she is running against Circuit Judge Robert A. Foster as a vendetta for his role in one of the Bar proceedings but has told people she does not plan on serving if elected.

"She did state to me that in no way would the firm be jeopardized," said lawyer Claudia Blackwell, who resigned from Real's firm in February. "If she won, she would not accept the seat."

But Real, who so far has spent $83,507 on her campaign, more than any other judicial hopeful in Hillsborough, countered that she is a serious candidate. She said she wants to serve one term, then return to the family law practice she has had since 1981.

She is being unfairly attacked, she said, for running against an incumbent and speaking out against the judiciary.

"It's Bob and his minions, and it's political," she said.

Foster strongly denied asking anyone to criticize his opponent.

"I wouldn't even think of doing something like that," he said. "I'm running my campaign based upon my qualifications."

Typically, lawyers avoid speaking negatively about their peers in print. But the lawyers who spoke with the Times said Real's behavior in her office and the courtroom raised serious concerns for them about the impact on her clients.

"I'm glad I worked there because I learned what not to do," said lawyer Jimmy Schaffer, who spent three years as a law clerk and four months as an lawyer in Real's office in the early 1990s.

Brett Rahall, an associate in Real's firm for about five years, cited high staff turnover and Real's inattentiveness toward clients as worries. Real often called in sick on the days she was supposed to appear in court, he said.

"It happened all the time," Rahall said. "I really felt like she was letting the clients down."

Real flatly denied skipping out on clients. "You can't be a successful business person and fit that mold," she said.

Ann Kristina Carter, a kindergarten teacher in Pasco County, said she felt disillusioned soon after giving Real a $5,000 retainer fee in March 2000. Real told her she would handle all aspects of Carter's divorce case, including court hearings, but quickly passed the file off to an associate, Carter said.

"I never saw her again," Carter said.

At one point, Carter wrote the associate a note thanking him for his counsel. But when he left the firm in September 2000, things between Real and Carter grew tense.

During a final phone conversation, Real told her client to "quit whining," Carter said. Real withdrew from the case soon after; Carter said the attorney left her without enough money to hire new counsel two weeks before a scheduled hearing.

Carter's case is the basis for one of three probable cause findings against Real by the Florida Bar. Jodi Thompson, a Bar staff attorney, is drafting those findings as formal complaints, which she expects to file with the Florida Supreme Court in the next couple of weeks. The case would then be heard by a referee.

"Getting a divorce is painful," Carter said. "Getting stabbed by your own attorney is pretty bad."

Real denies any wrongdoing in Carter's case.

In a lengthy interview Tuesday, the family law attorney said she saves her clients money by having skilled associates do work at $150 an hour versus her $400 hourly fee. But if a client wants her in court, she said, she goes.

"She's one of the pre-eminent family law attorneys in Tampa," said Frank Lester Adams III, who has known Real since they were prosecutors in the late '70s. "If I was getting a divorce, I would go to her."

Real described herself as a control freak and a tough taskmaster. She said her office has served as a training ground for many of Tampa's family law attorneys, and she expects turnover because of the size of her staff. None of the former associates interviewed by the Times had been fired.

"I don't speak ill of my prior employees. Period," she said. "Now, most of them have not been successful, not like my law firm."

She added later: "The only time they depart is when they have to stand up and be good lawyers."

Real said her trouble at the courthouse began after she founded a watchdog group called Citizens for Better Courts about five years ago. She wanted judges to supply biographical information and job histories for a Web site but most balked.

"I have created some considerable old-time, good ol' boy opposition," she said.

Real's faceoffs with at least five Tampa judges are documented in court records.

In September 2003, she accused Circuit Judge Ralph Stoddard of cronyism and racism in a 25-page motion. Real argued the judge refused to recuse himself from her cases as payback for her attempt to get someone to run against him the previous year.

"In and outside of his judicial role, Judge Stoddard has engaged in a protracted and ongoing course of unethical misconduct designed to harass, embarrass and injure Catherine W. Real, attorney at law, in her professional and business capacities," the motion read.

Stoddard denied the motion as legally insufficient. Real withdrew from the case a year later, citing "irreconcilable differences" with her client.

Court transcripts recount another tense encounter during a trial in February. This time, Real questioned Circuit Judge Scott Stephens' impartiality.

"I get the distinct impression that you don't like me, Judge," Real said soon into the first day of a trial.

"Well, I have never met you before," Stephens said.

By the second day, Real asked to have the proceedings postponed so her client could find a new attorney. Real said Stephens had rolled his eyes and raised his voice at her; she worried there might be "political ramifications" on the case because she had declared her intentions to run against an incumbent judge, according to a motion.

"You were courteous to the opposing counsel and extremely rude to me," she told the judge.

"Well, I think the fact that he didn't interrupt me, that he made arguments that were based on statutes and rules rather than adverting to essentially the air probably helped his arguments be taken more seriously," the judge responded.

Real laughed heartily this week in recalling the judge's criticisms but said the experience was the worst of her legal career.

She acknowledged that requesting so many judicial disqualifications doesn't win her friends. However, she must aggressively seek fair judges for her clients, she said.

"Why would I, as a successful lawyer in town, pull on Superman's cape unless I truly believed the judiciary needed to be improved?" Real said.

Brent Yessin, a labor employment lawyer who hired Real to handle his divorce, said she does the right things for the right reasons.

"She is an absolute straight shooter," he said. "She's sharp, and she's tenacious and that probably does make some people nervous."

Real maintains she is not running against Foster for personal reasons. But former employees said she did not hide her disdain for the judge after he suggested a Bar investigator should attend an August 2002 hearing regarding a possible misrepresentation by Real.

During a previous hearing in a case before him, Real said a document had been filed with an appeals court when in fact it had not. Further review convinced Foster that Real had not knowingly lied, and he signed a sworn statement saying so in October 2004.

The Bar is proceeding with the case anyway.

"She told me that she would do what she had to do to get him off the bench," said Gary Williams, who has both worked for and been represented by Real and thinks she is a good attorney.

Real said it is no coincidence that the Bar found probable cause against her after she filed to run against a sitting judge.

"Politics," she said, noting she has never run afoul of the Bar before.

Richard Muga, who was Real's law partner for nearly 20 years until the late '90s, did not return the Times' phone calls for this story.

But he, along with several other former Real employees, have found a quiet way to comment on the race.

They contributed money to Foster's campaign.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 24, 2006, 01:25:06]


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