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Judge's trial opens in misconduct case

Cynthia Holloway, a circuit judge, faces scrutiny by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which regulates the behavior of jurists.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 16, 2001


TAMPA -- A judge in a bitter child custody lawsuit had removed a 4-year-old from her home. Desperate to get the girl back, the mother called her congressman, her state legislator and someone else she knew:

Cynthia Holloway, a circuit judge who has handled some of Tampa's high-profile criminal trials.

Holloway went in March 2000 to see the judge presiding over the custody case. Without warning, she entered Judge Ralph Stoddard's office.

Pointing her finger at him, Holloway demanded to know why he couldn't hold a hearing in the case faster. Walking out in a huff, Holloway told Stoddard that one of the lawyers in the case must have a picture of him with a dog.

"It shocked me," said Stoddard's judicial assistant, Sharron Cosby. "In my mind, I know what that implied."

Witnesses described the scene Monday at the start of Holloway's trial on misconduct charges before the Judicial Qualifications Commission, a state agency that regulates the behavior of judges.

"Judge Holloway abandoned her role to be impartial, her role as a public servant," JQC special counsel Beatrice Butchko said. "The type of behavior will show that Judge Holloway was tragically out of control."

The JQC charged Holloway with interfering in the custody case and making misleading statements about it. They also said she improperly tried to influence a detective in the custody case, improperly helped her brother in his divorce and improperly helped a friend prevent tree trimmers from cutting down oak trees.

Holloway's behavior before Stoddard was part of a pattern repeated four other times since 1999, Butchko said.

At the start of the trial, Holloway's attorney admitted that the comment to Stoddard was inappropriate. "She recognizes it was a mistake," attorney Michael Rywant said.

But Holloway denied she abused her postion in other cases. She also denied lying under oath.

"Other than the admitted charge, you will exonerate Judge Holloway," Rywant told the JQC panel of two judges, two lawyers and two lay people who sit as a jury.

If the panel finds that Holloway violated judicial canons of ethics, it could recommend that she get a reprimand, be suspended or be removed from the bench. The Florida Supreme Court has the final say in the case.

The judge's troubles started when the mother of the 4-year-old called Holloway, a family friend, as a witness in the custody case. The mother had accused the father of abusing their daughter. Holloway testified that the child had touched herself in an unusual way.

Sometime after testifying, Holloway called Detective John Yaratch, who was investigating the allegations. Holloway asked him to conduct a forensic interview of the child, he said. She didn't reveal she had testified in the case, he said in court Monday.

"I felt it was an influential request that I took no heed of," Yaratch said.

Under cross-examination, Holloway's lawyers tried to discredit Yaratch. They pointed out mistakes had Yaratch made in other depositions. Yaratch was biased against the mother and Holloway, they said.

Months after her call to Yaratch and her visit to Judge Stoddard, Holloway gave a deposition in the custody case. Asked whether she'd contacted Stoddard, Holloway said no.

"Did you telephone him, contact him in any way?"

"No."

Holloway wasn't asked if she'd ever contacted the judge, only whether she'd done so on a specific date, her attorneys argued. Even so, Holloway later corrected her testimony. Her lawyers said that fixed her mistake; the JQC said the correction only compounded the error.

JQC lawyers also claimed that Holloway improperly signed an injunction to stop tree trimmers from cutting down oaks by a friend's Hyde Park office on a Saturday in July 1999.

Randy Emmerman, who wanted the trees cut, testified that Holloway had threatened to throw him in jail. Emmerman said Holloway told him not to cut trees anywhere near her friend's office.

Attorney Jeanne Tate said Emmerman wasn't even there that Saturday. Tate had called Holloway at home to get an injunction to stop the tree trimmers. Tate said Holloway had not threatened to put anyone in jail, nor did the judge help because she was a friend.

The two lawyers aren't really close, Tate said. They worked at the same firm once, and Tate goes to a football tailgate party in Gainesville sponsored by the law firm of Holloway's husband.

Holloway "did the same thing any other judge would do," Tate said.

The trial continues today with Holloway's defense.

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