Schiavo judge gets no shelter from storms

Judge George Greer moves from the Terri Schiavo case to the divorce wars.

By John Barry, Times Staff Writer
Published January 20, 2008

Three years later, the death threats have tapered off. No one in Congress has called him a murderer of late. To the best of his knowledge, the current governor of Florida isn't mad at him at all.

George Greer, the Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge who presided over the Terri Schiavo case until her death in 2005, has a new assignment. He no longer judges guardianship cases. He judges divorce cases.

His transfer from probate/guardianship court to family court should allow Judge Greer, 65, to serve the next three years in peaceful obscurity before his planned retirement. How many Pinellas County divorce judges make headlines?

Eyebrows raised, he asks, "What's the biggest divorce case coming up?"

Oh, no - not that mean, ugly, nose-busting, eye-gouging, arm-twisting marital smackdown known as Mr. Hulk Hogan vs. Mrs. Hulk Hogan.

The judge smiles.

"I'm told it's mine."

Nothing compares to the literal loss of a life - the end of the five-year Terri Schiavo struggle in Greer's court - but divorce cases are, in their own terrible ways, rife with life and death issues. Will dad ever see his kids again? Will mom survive financially? Will their children suffer the most?

Last Monday morning:

A divorcing couple comes to see Greer. The last remaining dispute is the education of their 10-year-old daughter. She's in the fifth grade in Catholic school. Mom and dad both wish she could stay there through the eighth grade.

But dad says he can't pay for even part of private school. He makes $2,000 a month. He pays $535 for child support, and $600 for rent, plus he owes his lawyer $5,000. He doesn't know what groceries are going to cost because, he explains, he never had to buy groceries when he had a wife.

The issue before Greer is: Should this child lose her school, her teachers, her friends, because her parents no longer love each other?

"This is what happens so often in divorce cases," Greer tells the couple. "The parents barely made ends meet when they were together. After divorce, they have to pay for two households."

Children get stuck with the bill.

He orders the dad to pay an extra $200 a month for the school tuition. Mom offers to front 100 percent of the other costs - school uniforms, pencils, copy books.

- - -

The threats have tapered off. Greer's life is altered, in mostly good ways. But the threats have not been forgotten.

He is a proud grandfather who doesn't dare say publicly even what his grandchildren's names are or where they live.

He is nationally famous, has 20 honors displayed in his chambers, almost all awarded during the Schiavo case. The largest is the 2005 President's Award of Merit from the Florida Bar: "for your unswerving commitment to the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the fundamentals of American democracy."

Robert Butterworth, former state attorney general, now secretary of the Department of Children and Families, says it's easy to get that chopped-liver feeling in Greer's presence.

Butterworth recalls a speech he gave at a Florida Bar conference in Orlando. He was flattered to see Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy sitting in the audience. But suddenly Kennedy got up and marched out of the hall. Watching the doors swing shut behind the justice, Butterworth worried, "Why is he walking out on me?"

Kennedy later apologized. "Don't take it personally," he said. "I heard Judge Greer was outside and I just had to meet him."

- - -

Other honors have been named after him. The Clearwater Bar Association created the George W. Greer Judicial Independence Award. In 2007, it gave the award to Judge Crockett Farnell.

It had special meaning for both men. Farnell was Greer's mentor when both presided over juvenile court. "He's a type A guy," Greer says. He taught Greer how to be tough.

Farnell was famous in 2006 for threatening to jail and fine the secretary of the Department of Children and Families. The secretary, Lucy Hadi, had resisted Farnell's order to move hundreds of mentally ill inmates from jails into hospitals, claiming that her department didn't have the money to pay for their care.

An outraged Gov. Jeb Bush barked that Farnell had thrown a "judicial temper tantrum." But when Charlie Crist became governor, he put Butterworth in charge, and the two found $16-million to get sick people out of jails.

Greer had felt Farnell's influence years ago in juvenile court, when he had a case involving a little girl who had been sexually molested. Greer had ordered therapy for her. A year went by, and state caretakers had not provided the therapy.

"They told me, 'Judge, there's no money.'

"I hate to shoot the messenger, but I said, 'If that child isn't in therapy by Friday, someone is going to jail.'

"The money fell out of the sky."

- - -

Last Monday morning, after the divorcing couple left to go find tuition money, a woman came to court whom Greer recognized.

Karen Gaby had come for her final divorce judgment for a marriage that, in her words, had reached the point of "no love, no respect."

Greer knew her large Pinellas County family, had known many of them for years. In fact, a niece of Gaby's had once entered a motion in his court - in the Schiavo case.

The niece represented the Department of Children and Families. Her motion was to allow the department to intervene in the case, short-circuiting the guardianship of Schiavo's husband, Michael.

Greer denied the niece's motion, and sent her packing. But he also heard that she was a candidate for a county judgeship the governor was about to appoint.

He wanted to help her win the appointment. He thought about calling Jeb Bush.

"That would have been the kiss of death."

He kept quiet. The niece got the appointment anyway. Last Monday, her aunt got her divorce, and a hug from the judge.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.


Fast facts Judge George Greer

- His wife is Gail Patricia. He calls her "Buns."

- She drives him to work. He doesn't drive because of impaired vision.

- He runs. He tries to run 3 miles, five times a week.

- He has a view from his office of the Clearwater waterfront. But he keeps his back to the window.

- Friends say he was as conservative as Barry Goldwater while a student at Florida State University. His roommate for one semester was Jim Morrison. They did not get along.

- He is a former Pinellas County commissioner, elected in 1984. He said the experience helped make him a good judge, showing him how issues of right and wrong trumped personal relationships.

- He offered to write a book about his experiences in the Schiavo case, but couldn't interest a publisher.