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    A Times Editorial

    A shifting of power in Tampa

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2001


    Dennis Alvarez's retirement as chief judge in Hillsborough County amounts to a crash course in Tampa history. His departure, announced Thursday, reflects not only a shift in the city's old power base, but the movement within the legal community to make the judiciary more accountable. In electing a successor, the 48 judges in Hillsborough's circuit should look to build on the positive reforms that have taken place at the courthouse the past year.

    In terms of pure theater, Alvarez will be missed. His bare-knuckles style of the old school made him colorful, effective and feared. No lawyer in his right mind climbed the courthouse political ladder without first consulting "The Chief." Alvarez was a judge full-time in theory only. His vast network of friends, moles and political supporters gave Alvarez a sphere of influence unmatched by any local officeholder.

    But no one could hold the job for 13 years without skill and accomplishment. Alvarez made his office approachable and generally succeeded in keeping his elected colleagues happy. Alvarez was a progressive judge and a role model to Latinos in the community. He was committed to giving teenagers and petty drug defendants a second chance. Alvarez was also an effective lobbyist for the circuit, and he did, in his own way, genuinely care about the judiciary's public image.

    But, paradoxically, the same attributes that propelled and kept Alvarez in the job -- loyalty, discretion, an ease with throwing his weight around -- made him the wrong man to lead the courts. His decision to intervene and not inform the state Judicial Qualifications Commission when complaints first arose against then-Judge Ed Ward left new victims open to harassment. He also tried to referee a spoiled affair another judge had with a bailiff. Alvarez defended his involvement even after a grand jury criticized his behavior. "It's a shame," he told investigators when a third scandal broke last year. "I just hope that we could've handled it in house."

    By retiring, Alvarez effectively closes the reported JQC inquiry into his handling of courthouse scandals, a practical move given Alvarez's interest in running for mayor. The JQC should release whatever records it may have, given the circumstances of Alvarez's involvement and the damage the scandals have caused to public confidence.

    Though elected countywide, judges have relied traditionally on constituencies in the city. That is where Alvarez cut his teeth, and it is not surprising the judge would maneuver to return to public life as the man hiring friends at the fire department and throwing beads in the parade. But the judiciary serves a far more diverse county than it did when Jimmy Carter was president. Alvarez leaves July 1 after 20 years on the bench with a mixed record that mirrors the diffusion of power from the city to the county. The next chief, whom the judges will elect in April, should be a leader who can embrace the future as comfortably as the past.

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