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  • Anger at judges spawns campaign to elect them

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    Anger at judges spawns campaign to elect them

    A restaurateur, incensed at judges who try to rewrite laws instead of following them, takes his drive to end appointments statewide.

    By LUCY MORGAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Ted Hires doesn't profess to be anything more than "an ole country boy who makes barbecue," but says he is good and mad at Florida judges who try to write laws instead of following them.

    That's why he decided to start a statewide campaign to build support for electing, instead of appointing, members of the Florida Supreme Court and other appellate courts.

    Several other groups also have launched campaigns against the Supreme Court in the wake of decisions in the disputed presidential race.

    Hires is the owner of four Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q restaurants in Jacksonville and founder of the Justice Coalition, a victims' advocacy group that he started in 1995 after two men broke into his office.

    "I believe in an independent judiciary," Hires said earlier this month as he announced the formation of "Follow the Law." "But ours are accountable only to the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers and the Florida Bar."

    Hires' group has become a force to be reckoned with in Jacksonville. Duval Sheriff Nat Glover and more than a dozen businessmen serve on his board.

    Now they'll turn their efforts to a statewide campaign to make the courts more responsive to the wishes of Floridians, Hires says.

    "It's a flawed process that makes flawed decisions," he told reporters.

    Hires pointed to various death penalty decisions by the Florida Supreme Court and others that tossed out laws written by the Legislature.

    If the judges were elected, they'd have to listen to Floridians, he said.

    "I'm committed to doing whatever I can," he said. "If it takes 25 speeches a week, that's what I'll do. I want to bring accountability back to the system."

    He says voters who supported the current system in 1974 were "sold a bill of goods" and told the merit retention system would make the courts less political.

    Working with AT&T and other businesses, the Justice Coalition has put donated cell phones in the hands of more than 500 service drivers who routinely keep an eye out for suspicious activities and report them to police.

    The coalition has volunteers who staff Duval courtrooms to help victims and monitor judges. They do report cards on the judges, and when one failed last year, they organized a successful campaign to drive him out of office.

    The coalition has a daily radio call-in program and a monthly newspaper that has published the pictures of wanted criminals and helped apprehend more than 550 of them since 1995.

    Hires says he has personally put more than $300,000 into the coalition, but also relies on the contributions of more than 25,000 supporters.

    Hires, 54, got interested in helping victims about 11 a.m. on Feb. 24, 1995, when two men burst into his office.

    One of them was holding a gun to his head with the hammer pulled back when another employee walked in and interrupted the robbery.

    Hires and his employees chased, and exchanged gunfire with, the two men before police arrived to arrest them.

    A few months later, Hires' son, Ted Jr., was locked in a cooler after another robber held him at gunpoint at the Sonny's restaurant he manages. It was the sixth time one of his businesses had been robbed at gunpoint.

    That was the final straw. The elder Hires started the Justice Coalition.

    It wasn't long before the local sheriff was inviting Hires to sensitize deputies to the plight of victims.

    Hires said he has talked to House Speaker Tom Feeney and plans to wait and see what action legislators take before deciding whether to seek a constitutional amendment.

    Meanwhile, Hires will work on building support among Floridians.

    For openers, Hires filed a lawsuit against a North Florida Judicial Nominating Commission that has refused to produce records relating to its deliberations over recommendations it made for two new judges at the 1st District Court of Appeal.

    Last October, Hires filed a complaint with the nominating commission after one of its members distributed selected pages from the divorce file of Scott Makar, a Jacksonville lawyer who applied for one of the judicial positions.

    -- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which includes information from the Florida Times Union.

    Rulings rile lawmakers

    Several initiatives by the Republican-controlled Legislature have been rejected or delayed by court rulings, angering some lawmakers, who also were upset by the court's role in the presidential election.

    DEATH PENALTY APPEALS

    In April 2000, the Florida Supreme Court struck down portions of a new death penalty appeals law designed to speed up executions.

    CIVIL LAWSUIT REFORMS

    In February, Leon County Judge Nikki Ann Clark overturned the 1999 law that shields businesses from some lawsuits and limits lawsuit awards. She ruled it violated the Constitution's single subject rule.

    PRESIDENTIAL RECOUNT

    In December, the Florida Supreme Court twice handed Democrat Al Gore victories when it ordered recounts of thousands of votes. The U.S. Supreme Court later stopped the recounts, giving Republican George W. Bush the White House.

    A+ EDUCATION PLAN

    In October, a state appeals court upheld the constitutionality of tuition vouchers that enable students in failing public schools to use public money to attend private schools. A circuit judge had ruled the 1999 program unconstitutional. The issue is headed to the Florida Supreme Court.

    PARENTAL CONSENT

    In February, the 1st District Court of Appeal unanimously upheld a 1999 law that requires doctors to notify parents when a teen girl wants an abortion. The law had been held up by a legal challenge from abortion rights supporters.

    CHOOSE LIFE LICENSE PLATES

    Roughly 13,000 plates have been sold since August after legal challenges by abortion rights groups delayed sales. The Legislature approved it in 1999.

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    From the Times state desk