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Like him or not, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder has helped bring about positive change at the county courthouse. The local judiciary is more diverse, more open, more professional and more accountable because Holder alone among 48 judges had the courage to speak out against the good ol' boy system that has long been the fabric of Tampa politics. Now Holder is the subject of a conduct complaint -- thin gruel, by the look of documents and interviews released thus far. How the Judicial Qualifications Commission handles the matter will reflect on that agency's own judgment and candor.
We are in no position to judge at this stage whether Holder violated judicial ethics. The JQC is trying to determine whether Holder misled a federal judicial nominating panel by declaring at the time he was unaware of any professional complaints filed against him. Holder had met on two occasions with the JQC chairman, who admonished him for speaking to reporters. Several attorney-members of the nominating commission said they did not believe that Holder misled them. They also said they doubted that the facts amounted to a material change or would have played a role in determining whether Holder was nominated. It will be up to the JQC to make a convincing case that a meeting between judicial colleagues somehow equates with a formal disciplinary process.
Holder has welcomed an airing of the facts, and we'll leave his defense to him. But the episode raises troubling questions about the process and whether judges who blow the whistle face retaliation. On what pretext, for example, did a JQC representative meet with Holder? The disciplinary process exists to establish a public record and to prevent a small circle of judges from refereeing ethical and political disputes. If the JQC meeting with Holder was intended to keep him quiet, what confidence can the public have in the agency's ability to handle judges who are genuine problems?
The JQC has at least as many questions to answer. If it is firing a shot over Holder's bow to keep other judges from voicing dissent, then the whole concept behind the JQC -- that the judiciary can be trusted to self-police -- will lose its moral authority.
Holder has his detractors -- they call him a showboat -- but it would be derelict to disregard the political and personal risks he took to right a justice system terribly off-track. Don't forget what the community learned about Judge Ward, Judge Ficarrotta, Judge Bonanno. If the JQC has a case against Holder, it should pursue it without reserve for the contribution he's made. What we may see instead is another example of the old boys at work.