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In search of honor in the halls of justice

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 15, 2000


A kid's memory, resurrected:

My father was a lawyer. He had a closet full of dark suits. No sport coats. It would be disrespecting the judge to wear something as casual as a sport coat to court.

This was long before Judge Wapner and Judge Judy and their various imitators.

They have made the bench a little more human. But that's TV. Nobody takes it seriously.

Judges can put you in jail, take away your kids, make you pay ridiculous alimony. Judges are the only people left in America with the equivalent of personal servants, bailiffs, who still bellow that almost medieval business about oyez, oyezand God save this honorable court.

Yes. Judges even get prayed over.

Some of them need more than a few prayers. They need whole rosaries.

There are lawyers who run for judge -- and win -- only because they were so incompetent they couldn't make a living and needed the steady paycheck of a public job.

And some of them are so unsteady in their own psyches that they take seriously the PR smoke that goes with the job.

Ed Ward may have been one of those.

Ward retired last week from the Hillsborough Circuit bench under pressure from the Judicial Qualifications Commission. He had himself confused with Brad Pitt. It wasn't enough that he hit up on some judicial assistants, women so far down the pecking order that resisting him was risky. Ward was bold enough to smooch a judge, and pursue another.

Other judges fall for the rich tradition of the courthouse. They are captivated by the history of the place.

Example No. 1 would be Ward's boss, Chief Hillsborough Circuit Judge F. Dennis Alvarez.

Alvarez had been told some of what Ward was up to and didn't report him to the JQC.

He even got one of the targets of Ward's ardor to agree to sign a statement promising she wouldn't bring any kind of charge against him.

To borrow from the current, unfortunate lingo, this is not what you call being proactive.

This was Dennis Alvarez covering his butt.

If Ed Ward got caught oiling his way down the courthouse corridor after women, the chief judge would look mighty silly. He might even look like he condoned it.

This very likely will elicit the interest of the JQC.

It better.

What Alvarez did, though, is not as surprising as it might seem to people who think like my father and want to give judges the greatest respect.

This is following in the footsteps of history.

Alvarez's predecessor as chief judge left amid a flurry of complaints, but none of them ever resulted in any formal charge.

Another of his predecessors was convicted of fixing a drug case.

Now we have Alvarez.

Many people don't know this, but there are two kinds of judges in the Hillsborough courthouse: the judges who are Alvarez's friends and those who aren't. And Alvarez deals with them all like a ward heeler -- when he isn't talking about running for mayor.

Alvarez is on leave, recovering from surgery. True to tradition, his temporary replacement as chief judge is also colorful. That's a word that covers a multitude of sins, and other acts.

The acting chief judge is Robert Bonnano, who still lives with a smudge against his name, over an unproven claim that he was a customer of escort services.

But of course.

This is the Hillsborough County Courthouse, where the phrase your honor can be something of a stretch.

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