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Resigning judge leaving a clean slate

Michael Blackstone, who stepped down before a hearing on complaints against him, leaves behind an empty office and docket.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000


INVERNESS -- The office walls were bare. The court calendar was clear. Circuit Judge Michael Blackstone didn't leave anything behind on Tuesday, except for a legacy.

Voters put Blackstone in office in 1996. He took himself out of office on Halloween, resigning in the face of an ethics inquiry.

Blackstone's chambers were stripped bare by Tuesday afternoon. Gone were the football trophies. Gone were the pictures from the junior gridiron teams he coached. He entered a hearing room in the new courthouse about 2:30 p.m., set to preside over a last dispute in family court.

Dressed in slacks and a polo shirt, Blackstone spent his final day hearing a few last cases and signing some orders. He announced his resignation some time ago, so there was ample time to clean house, which is exactly what he did.

"We are completely current," he said.

The house wasn't so clean in early 1997, when Blackstone took office.

He was a surprise victor in the 1996 election, defeating longtime incumbent John Thurman by the narrowest of margins. More than 94,000 ballots were cast throughout the five-county Fifth Judicial Circuit, and the race was so close that a recount was necessary.

Blackstone emerged the victor, but he didn't just inherit a black robe; he also inherited a criminal court backlog that took months to reduce. The judge took pride in that work, but not everyone shared in the glee.

Lawyers and litigants complained about Blackstone's manner and comments. He intruded during trials, asking too many questions and betraying a bias, as an appellate court would later say. His relationship with fellow judges, particularly Circuit Judge Patricia Thomas, grew strained.

Word of the complaints spread to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigated and earlier this year charged Blackstone with eight misconduct counts. He was accused of conducting his own investigations into cases that were pending before him, making rude and sexist remarks in court, denigrating Thomas behind her back and lying to commission investigators, among other things.

Blackstone offered a spirited defense. But in August, with a commission hearing just weeks away, he submitted his resignation letter to Gov. Jeb Bush. The governor now will select another man -- lawyers Glen Abbott, Ric Howard and Ray Gill are finalists -- to take Blackstone's place.

"I don't know whether to hope that they care as much as I do or to suggest that they not," Blackstone said Tuesday.

The judge seemed upbeat, not melancholy. "I feel like I've gotten my life back," he said. "I much prefer to be Mike Blackstone than Judge Michael Blackstone."

He said he will begin practicing law again, possibly serving as a court mediator. There will be no rest time.

"All I know how to do is work," he said.

Speaking of work, it will go on while Bush decides who the next judge will be. Other judges will handle Blackstone's family court docket, and Blackstone's judicial assistant, Kathie Carpenter, will remain in the office -- for now. She is a state employee, but the new judge won't be obliged to keep her on board.

"The citizens of Citrus County have consistently been supportive of me and that hasn't changed one iota," he said.

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