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New chief judge bears a quiet contrast

The 53-year-old jurist seldom makes headlines. He replaces F. Dennis Alvarez, who left after a year of courthouse scandals.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2001

TAMPA -- Only three months ago, Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez sat in the tall leather chair at the head of the judicial conference room, chatting easily with reporters, his trademark gold cuff links gleaming.

Wednesday, Alvarez was in the same room -- only this time on the sidelines, with a new chief at the helm. And this one couldn't have been more different.

Circuit Judge Manuel Menendez Jr., elected unanimously as Hillsborough's new chief judge Wednesday, spoke briefly and formally as cameras rolled.

"I look forward to the challenge," said Menendez before excusing himself to return to a jury trial.

With Alvarez's departure, a courthouse era is over. He leaves after a year that has included lurid details of a fellow judge's affair, resignations, infighting and politics where there was supposed to be none. He steps down after questions were raised about his handling of judicial matters, though he insists his resignation is unrelated.

Now Menendez, a civil court judge and man of few headlines, steps up to replace the popular, flashy and controversial chief who reigned for 13 years as administrative boss of Hillsborough's judges.

With his crisp shirts and slicked-back silver hair, Alvarez served on a dozen local boards and was good at asking for funds in Tampa or Tallahassee. Even his detractors acknowledge his energy made things happen, including a drug court aimed at getting first-time offenders help instead of jail time.

"Dennis Alvarez, chief judge, and the courthouse have been one," Alvarez said this week. "I have been the face of the judiciary."

Lawyers who hoped to become judges in Hillsborough knew it was wise to seek his counsel, or as some put it, kiss his ring. Members of the nominating committee called regularly for his opinion.

Will Menendez wield that same influence?

"I think it's something Manny is going to have to establish," said Alvarez, 55. "He may sit back and say, 'I don't want it. I don't care.' "

For his part, Menendez is guarded when asked about his style and ambitions as chief.

"My goals are to do the best that I can," said Menendez, 53.

His focus: getting funding from the Legislature and County Commission. He said he doesn't plan to get involved in political issues or resolve ethical conflicts of other judges.

"I don't go where I'm not invited," he said.

Appointed to the bench in 1983, Menendez has been a judge in family law, criminal and civil courts. Before that, he was a federal prosecutor in Tampa and Jacksonville. Colleagues call him hard-working, studious and smart. A University of Florida graduate, his office is a shrine to the Florida gator.

He also once had a reputation for a temper on the bench. Today he calls his legendary habit of snapping pencils at tense moments "a poor choice of stress relief" and a thing of the past.

"I haven't snapped a pencil in 20 years," he said.

"Seventeen," he amended.

"He has a marvelous sense of humor," said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer, who with Menendez has taught courses for new judges. "He's very bright. He's just a well-rounded judge."

But initially, a lack of political insight may be a shortcoming, she said.

"There are some politics that go along with being a chief judge," she said. "You have to understand who is who, and act accordingly."

Others say it could be a good thing.

"I don't think Manny's political at all," said Circuit Judge Debra Behnke. "Maybe the decision-making can be based more on the court's needs than politics."

For his part, Alvarez may simply seek a different spotlight. He'll go to work as a civil court mediator, but he said he's "leaning toward" his long-rumored run for mayor.

He can see himself answering calls from Tallahassee when the governor has a list of lawyers seeking judicial appointments.

"I'm going to be politically active in whatever race is of interest," he said. "Why not? For 21 years (as a judge), my hands were cuffed about being involved in politics."

- Contact David Karp at (813) 226-3376 or Contact Sue Carlton at (813) 226-3346 or

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