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Hillsborough judge in Islamic law case no liberal

TAMPA — They've called for his removal. They've said he is an idiot, a judicial activist, a traitor, a liberal and, yes, perhaps even a Democrat.

In the explosion of criticism against Hillsborough Circuit Judge Richard A. Nielsen after he invoked Islamic law in a case involving a Tampa mosque, the caricature of the judge is absurdly incorrect, friends say.

"In liberal land Christians praying is offensive, 'sharia' law is good," one blogger wrote.

A former Navy chaplain said on YouTube, "Nielsen empowers Islamic terrorists. … God remove him swiftly as a judge."

Critics might be surprised by a few facts gleaned from friends, colleagues and public records.

Nielsen is a registered Republican and a conservative. Jeb Bush, no bastion of liberal politics, appointed Nielsen to the bench in 2000. Nielsen is one of the most active members of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz. He once removed himself from a case because one of the lawyers was in his Bible study group.

"To make an assumption that he is an international law loving liberal is nuts," said Tampa lawyer Chip Purcell, who often appears before the judge. "Honestly, he's never told me what his politics are. But I'd be stunned if he was a liberal."

As proof that Nielsen is no dunce, colleagues note he heads the circuit's demanding Complex Business Litigation Division.

Colleagues say Nielsen is hard working, thorough and fair. Some say he can be slow to render decisions in a division with a large backlog of cases.

"He's got that reputation," said lawyer John Campbell, who is a member of Idlewild and has practiced in front of Nielsen. "It's not a valid one. Complex cases require extra attention."

At one point, the court stopped accepting new cases so Nielsen could catch up, Campbell said.

It's on that division's Web page where lawyers can find words, perhaps written by Nielsen, on proper courtroom etiquette.

"Remember that a good reputation can be easily lost and a bad reputation is hard to overcome."

Nielsen, 61, of Lutz, declined to be interviewed, instead pointing a reporter to his brief biography on a court website.

Nielsen got his law degree from the University of Florida in 1973. He also is a 1971 cum laude graduate of the University of New Mexico with a degree in general studies. Before his appointment to the bench, Nielsen was a board-certified civil trial lawyer.

In two elections after his 2000 appointment to the bench, Nielsen drew no opposition.

He is a deacon at Idlewild.

Married with two grown children, he earns $142,178 a year as a judge. He lists his net worth as $500,000 on a 2009 financial disclosure form.

Nielsen's pastor, Ken Whitten, said Nielsen is a superb role model who is sincere and consistent in his beliefs and actions.

"The tongue in his mouth and the tongue in his shoes walk in the same direction," Whitten said.

Aside from the current controversy, Nielsen has mostly avoided trouble in his career with a notable exception.

In 2002, Nielsen forced a 16-year-old, Juan C. Elias, to represent himself in a restitution hearing in a car theft and burglary case.

State law requires juveniles to be represented by an attorney.

The judge didn't appoint one, and then ejected the teen's mother from the hearing when she counseled him in Spanish.

"You don't have a lawyer, Mr. Elias," Nielsen said. "So you're going to represent yourself in this matter."

"I don't have nobody representing me?" the youth asked. "I don't understand these things."

The judge asked whether he had trouble speaking English.

"No, but sometimes the words you all use, like, um, I don't really get 'em that much," Elias said.

Nielsen has never discussed the case with reporters.

He also found his name in the news in one mini-controversy. Nielsen filed a Bar complaint against prominent Tampa lawyer Arnold Levine after he caught Levine at a 2006 hearing removing papers from his desk.

Nielsen said he found Levine's actions unprofessional.

A Pinellas County judge, appointed as a referee to hear the complaint, cleared Levine of wrongdoing.

But the controversies of the past are a breeze compared with the current one.

The judge ruled he will decide if an arbitration between warring factions at a mosque, the Islamic Education Center of Tampa, followed appropriate procedures according to Islamic law.

Nielsen has said he won't use Islamic law at trial to determine whether mosque trustees were inappropriately ousted.

His decision to use Islamic law to decide on the arbitration process is being appealed — by the mosque.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory Holder recently visited Nielsen's office early one morning to offer support.

Holder said he knows the criticism stings Nielsen.

"He takes great pride in his honesty, integrity and his professionalism, all of which are at the highest levels," Holder said.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

Hillsborough judge in Islamic law case no liberal 03/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 9:58pm]
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