Judge takes religious sabbatical

The Hillsborough circuit judge plans to go to the West Bank to work at refugee camps.

By JUSTIN GEORGE, Times Staff Writer
Published November 28, 2007

TAMPA - The e-mail from a colleague surprised judges at the Hillsborough County Courthouse. Circuit Judge Monica Sierra told peers this week she is taking a leave of absence, something no judge has done in at least 13 years.

"No one has ever taken a sabbatical since I've been on the bench," Circuit Judge Gregory Holder said.

Effective Dec. 27, Sierra will step away to bring the gospel to Palestinian refugees in Israel.

"Terrorism is born in the heart of the refugee camps," she wrote in the e-mail. "The Word of God is a powerful weapon that America can use to fight terrorism. His Word, directed into the heart of terrorism, will bring transformation to the world."

Hillsborough Chief Judge Manuel Menendez granted Sierra, one of 62 judges, three months of unpaid leave.

Judges, elected by voters, should be available for duty 24 hours a day and take no more than 30 paid vacation days a year, according to state judicial guidelines, which do not specifically address unpaid sabbaticals.

Sierra, who makes $145,000 a year, didn't return a phone call Tuesday but scheduled a news conference for today.

In her e-mail to colleagues, she wrote with conviction about joining the Living Bread International Church, which works to bring food, supplies, education and the gospel to 27 West Bank refugee camps.

Sierra's planned role is unclear. A volunteer who answered Living Bread's St. Petersburg number referred calls to an Israeli headquarters, which couldn't be reached.

The organization's Web site calls missionaries to "join a team that is serving God in Ancient Jericho with the good news of the gospel of conquering love that never fails."

The church, which began in Florida, hosts an international television show called Door of Hope,produced in a cave on the Mount of Temptations where Jesus is said to have resisted the devil's temptations. It's aired on the Internet and television stations including WCLF-Ch. 22.

The Rev. Karen Dunham, a single mother from St. Petersburg, runs the church and its broadcasts. In a San Francisco Chronicle story this year, Dunham said she battled drinking and drugs, changed and began helping soup kitchens and halfway houses before going abroad. She sold family property to finance her work, she said.

The nondenominational church's Web site tells of miracles and healing, casting out demons and speaking in tongues, handling serpents and drinking deadly poison without harm.

"We have a church that sometimes reaches 600 in attendance and what you see is Muslims lifting their hands to the Lord," Dunham told the Christian Broadcasting Network. "And they're not there because I went house to house and invited any of them. They're out there because they've had a dream or a vision or visitation from the spirit of the Lord."

Persecution, Dunham has said, forced her to move four times after her homes were firebombed, as recently as last year.

Hillsborough County Court administrator Mike Bridenback wouldn't discuss Sierra's plans, saying he worried about her safety.

Previous controversy

Sierra, 41, is a Tampa native who attended Academy of Holy Names high school and Furman University, a liberal arts college founded by Baptists. She became Hillsborough's youngest judge in 2002 when she upset an opponent who had more than 30 years of civil trial work.

She is one of about 15 judges in the courthouse's unified family division and one of five who handle dependency cases. About 1,200 dependency cases are filed in Hillsborough County each year, most of which remain in the court system for two years or more.

Three years ago, Sierra said she had reduced the caseload in her division from a rough average of 600 cases to 450.

But her tenure is not without controversy.

Twice, the 2nd District Court of Appeal removed her from custody cases. One complaint alleged that she gave her telephone number and e-mail address to children in a custody dispute and encouraged them to contact her privately. She also made all lawyers leave her courtroom so she could speak privately with a child and his father.

The incidents went against a judicially sacrosanct principle of avoiding private communication with one party in a case. Both times Sierra rejected requests to step down from the case, prompting her removal.

In 2004, Sierra said she wanted to solve more custody disputes outside the courtroom by encouraging counseling and mediation.

While she is away, Bridenback said, the courthouse will have senior judges - retired justices who act as substitutes - covering her docket. The move won't cost the court system any more money, he said.

In her e-mail, Sierra told colleagues she would be praying for them while she was gone. She closed by wishing the judges a Happy New Year.

"You have an open invitation to join me in Israel," she said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Living Bread International Church

- Nondenominational, evangelical church founded in Florida and run by Karen Dunham, a St. Petersburg native.

- Operates out of a wedding hall in Jerusalem, serving West Bank refugee camps with food, supplies and gospel messages.

- Weekly television show airs on Christian Television Network, WCLF-Ch. 22 Tampa, on Monday at 1 a.m. and Friday at 7 p.m.

Source: www.livingbreadchurch.com