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High court ousts Manatee judge

The decision marks the first time a Florida judge has been kicked off the bench for verbally attacking an incumbent.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 17, 2001


The decision marks the first time a Florida judge has been kicked off the bench for verbally attacking an incumbent.

Three years after Manatee County's voters elected Matt McMillan a judge, the Florida Supreme Court booted him from the bench Thursday.

The high court declared that his campaign tactics made him unfit to wear a robe.

The court's unanimous decision to remove McMillan marks the first time a Florida judge has been kicked off the bench for running a misleading campaign, said Brooke Kennerly, executive director of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission.

In recent years, the high court has begun cracking down on would-be judges because of their campaign rhetoric.

In any other type of race, a challenger is not only allowed to call the incumbent a bum, it's considered par for the course. But not in a judicial race. No matter what the Constitution says about the right to free speech, judicial rules forbid candidates to say little beyond promising to be fair and impartial.

In 1997 the Supreme Court reprimanded a Seminole County judge who attacked the incumbent. Thursday's ruling, written by Chief Justice Charlie Wells, expressed frustration that McMillan ignored the lesson of the Seminole case.

As a result, the justices said they had little choice but to remove McMillan. Otherwise, they said, "to allow someone who has committed such misconduct during a campaign ... to then serve the term of the judgeship obtained by such means clearly sends the wrong message to future candidates; that is, the end justifies the means and, thus, all is fair so long as the candidate wins."

McMillan, a former police officer and prosecutor, and his wife, Susan, who was his campaign manager, could not be reached for comment. They released written statements indicating they will, as Mrs. McMillan put it, "close this chapter of our lives ... and pursue other dreams."

"Every minute of every day on the bench I tried to make someone's life better," McMillan said. "I am confident that the Lord led me to embark upon this undertaking. ... I trust God's wisdom in this."

McMillan was a political novice in 1998 when he took on county Judge George Brown. In 16 years on the bench Brown had never faced an opponent. Nobody had beaten an incumbent Manatee judge in 30 years.

McMillan branded Brown as lenient and lazy. He accused Brown of refusing to jail violent criminals and working only 14 hours a week. McMillan told police that he would "go to bat for you," and bragged he would "always have the heart of a prosecutor."

He won by 1,000 votes, but local defense attorneys reported him to the JQC, which investigates judicial misconduct.

The JQC found that many of his complaints about Brown were wrong. For instance, McMillan's calculation about Brown's work schedule on the bench didn't take into account the time he spent working in his chambers. And McMillan's pledges to favor police undermined public confidence in his impartiality, the JQC concluded.

McMillan argued his criticism of Brown was protected by the First Amendment. He complained he was being persecuted by a powerful group known as the Good Old Boys that included the sheriff and chief judge.

- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story.

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