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Judge Alvarez leaving the bench

After presiding for 12 years over a courthouse that has seen its share of trouble, the chief judge will retire July 1.

By DAVID KARP and SUE CARLTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


TAMPA -- On the day last month that he won re-election to another term as chief judge, F. Dennis Alvarez sat back in a leather chair in the judicial conference room and wondered wistfully what life would be like as a private citizen.

Alvarez had presided over the Hillsborough County Courthouse for 12 years with a mix of charm and political savvy -- and lately endured frequent questioning of his handling of courthouse troubles and errant judges.

On Thursday, in an e-mail to his colleagues, he announced he would resign effective July 1, something he had been mulling over for months.

"After serious deliberation and deep thoughtful consideration, I have decided to pursue other career opportunities," Alvarez wrote.

He did not explain his reasons, and he decided to release the news after minor surgery on his throat that has prevented him from speaking.

His future possibly includes work at a private law firm and a run for mayor of Tampa, a job coveted since childhood.

His political prospects could be damaged, though, by his abrupt exit after a difficult year at the courthouse.

The public watched a series of stories the past two years about judges raising campaign money for politicians, having affairs with bailiffs, sending sexually charged e-mails to other judges and making racially insensitive remarks in court.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission, which oversees the conduct of Florida's judges, opened an investigation last fall into Alvarez's handling of the misconduct, but the outcome of the JQC inquiry has never been officially released.

Asked about the JQC investigation last month, Alvarez, 55, said it would not play a role in his retirement. His resignation effectively ends any formal charges the JQC can bring. It also means the JQC will not release the records of its investigation.

Even so, political consultant Wayne Garcia said the courthouse investigations will hurt Alvarez if he runs for mayor.

"He won't win," Garcia said. "The courthouse stuff, it's like death by a thousand little cuts. He was at the center of everything, so it all gets tarred onto him."

Alvarez's political skills, though, are legion.

Born in Ybor City and raised in West Tampa, Alvarez is the son of cigar workers with Spanish and Italian roots. His mother was a cafeteria manager, serving decades of lunches at St. Joseph's Catholic School.

As a kid, he slapped orange "Sam Gibbons for State House" stickers on car bumpers and dreamed that one day he might like to be mayor. He left Tampa once, when he went to law school in Texas on the recommendation of E.J. Salcines, a family friend who at the time was running for county solicitor.

He returned home to a prosecutor's job in Salcines' office. He later went into private practice with a lawyer named Robert Bonanno, who became one of his closest friends and a fellow judge.

"If you are in war, you want him in the foxhole with you," said Tax Collector Doug Belden, a friend. "He is loyal to a fault and that is a rare thing in politics these days."

In 1980, Alvarez ran unopposed for the county bench and won. That same year, he underwent major heart bypass surgery at the age of 34.

Four years later he became a circuit judge, again running without opposition. A year later, he suffered a heart attack, quit smoking and changed his diet.

In 1988, Alvarez took over the job of chief judge.

He has been chief since, longer than any judge in modern Tampa history.

His colleagues mention a litany of successful court programs under Alvarez's watch. He helped create drug court, which emphasizes treatment for minor drug offenders and which won awards; domestic violence court; and the "rocket docket," which eases the glut of juvenile cases.

"He was a good chief judge because he is ambitious," said Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett, who ran against Alvarez for chief judge in 1991. "He's done things for us that a less ambitious chief judge probably wouldn't be able to do."

Other judges praised Alvarez's accomplishments as the court system grew and became more complex.

"I think his leaving will be a great loss," Circuit Judge Dick Greco Jr. said. "I think he has done a great job, and I think he is well thought of."

His reputation, though, has been tarnished by the recent investigations into judges. A grand jury in January criticized his handling of the courthouse scandals, and recommended that the Florida Supreme Court and the local judiciary examine his leadership.

The grand jury criticized Alvarez for not doing enough to prevent the scandals, while critics suggested he had tried cover them up.

The grand jury suggested that judges consider term limits for the chief judge, an idea that an informal committee of judges says it will support.

Now that Alvarez is leaving, the judges also will consider creating a senior counsel of judges under the chief to disperse power, Padgett said.

The circuit's judges will hold a special election April 4 to elect a judge to the administrative post, which carries few formal powers but plenty of unofficial political duties.

Alvarez has thrown his support to Circuit Judge Manuel Menendez Jr., who was appointed in 1984, several judges said.

Other judges who might be nominated include Padgett and Circuit Judge Debra Behnke, who ran against Alvarez in February.

"I think it's probably good for him and good for the judiciary," Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer said of Alvarez's retirement. "We'll see."

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