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Judge George Greer retires with dozens of awards for one case: Terri Schiavo

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer sorts through files and books while cleaning out his Clearwater office Wednesday.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer sorts through files and books while cleaning out his Clearwater office Wednesday.

George Greer was a low-key county commissioner and judge, the rare elected official who never really cared for publicity. But as he cleaned out his judicial office for the final time last week to begin his retirement, Greer packed away dozens of awards honoring his service on the Pinellas-Pasco circuit bench. The awards stem from the case that defined his 18-year judicial career, a case that exploded into national controversy and threatened his safety.

Hillsborough County judges gave him an "award of awards," poking fun at him for "having received more awards than all of his colleagues put together, and all for having handled one measly case."

It was a case unlike any other in Pinellas County history — and maybe American history.

• • •

As a college student at Florida State University, Greer was among six people who shared a house, one of whom later became a rock star: Jim Morrison of the Doors.

Even later, as a judge, Greer said, "I was just fine, rocking along, thinking my legacy was supposed to be that I was one of Jim Morrison's roommates."

But in characteristic low-key fashion, anytime a reporter asked about his famous housemate, Greer didn't say much.

Along the way, Greer developed the idea that sometime, it would be nice to become a judge. "Judges kind of were on pedestals," he said. "They really were back then."

Raised in Dunedin, Greer became a lawyer in Pinellas specializing in land use issues, which put him in frequent contact with county officials. In 1984 he was elected to the County Commission, running on a platform of opposing the stadium that became Tropicana Field.

After eight years on the commission, Greer sought a judicial seat. He won without a campaign, drawing no opponents.

• • •

Terri Schiavo was 26 when she fell out of her bed at 5 a.m. one morning in 1990, suffering a cardiac arrest that was never fully explained. She went several minutes without oxygen, and suffered brain damage. How much became the heart of a legal dispute between Schiavo's husband, Michael, and her parents and siblings.

In 2000, the case landed before Greer.

During a trial, Michael Schiavo said it was time to take his wife off life support. Doctors testified that she was in "a persistent vegetative state" and would not improve. Schiavo's parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, disagreed, saying their daughter was aware of their presence during visits. Their doctors questioned the vegetative state diagnosis.

Greer decided after a trial that Terri's feeding tube could be removed — she would be allowed to die. He said he was persuaded by Michael Schiavo's testimony saying she would not have wanted to be kept alive on life support. Greer said there was "clear and convincing evidence."

This was the decision that led to years of appeals and attacks, including protests outside the Pinellas Park hospice where Terri Schiavo was cared for, blistering political debates, and international publicity.

It also made Greer the target of threats.

"I wore a bulletproof vest for months," Greer said. Undercover officers guarded him as he strolled outside for a lunchtime slice of pizza, or got a haircut. Twice, officers flew him and his wife to another Florida location for safety.

"It was absolute hell, it truly was — we were captive in our own home," said Greer's wife, Patricia. One day she got a delivery of dead flowers. "I opened the card and it said: 'no food, no water,' " she recalled.

And that wasn't the only pressure. There was also the president, the governor and Congress.

• • •

Greer had brushes with other high-profile cases — the Hulk Hogan divorce, and one involving relatives of the late writer Jack Kerouac.

But like most judges, Greer handled myriad cases, including criminal, family law, probate and juvenile dependency. Some went quickly, some took longer, but in general, one case did not tower over another. He says he tried to remember even routine cases were important to the people involved.

His fellow judges say Greer's hallmark on the bench was a patient, studious demeanor. Circuit Judge Linda Allan actually used to keep a picture of Greer on her computer.

"When I feel myself becoming irritated with lawyers or litigants, I take a moment to try to 'channel George Greer,' " she said.

• • •

That reputation was tested repeatedly as opponents of Greer's ruling vowed to prevent Terri Schiavo's death.

Four times, Greer refused to take himself off the case.

State lawmakers passed "Terri's law," to keep her alive and then Gov. Jeb Bush signed it. In a particularly stunning moment, his brother, President George Bush, cut short a Texas vacation to sign a similar law passed by Congress.

At one point, U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said "Mrs. Schiavo's life is not slipping away — it is being violently wrenched from her body in an act of medical terrorism."

Through it all, the feeding tube was removed, reinserted, removed, reinserted. Until the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the case.

Terri Schiavo died in March 2005.

• • •

Greer said it was surreal to hear his court rulings called "terrorism," and realize the nation's highest leaders were talking about him.

The thought fleetingly occurred to him that "these guys are in charge of the federal government. If (you're) a terrorist, you'd end up in Guantanamo Bay. Who would know?"

But Greer never defended or even explained himself. "I knew I couldn't. Was it hard? Yeah, it was hard, but I knew I couldn't."

"Judges are not supposed to get down in the pits and duke it out," Greer added. "We're not only supposed to be impartial, we're supposed to give the appearance of impartiality."

Greer's friends, even those who talked to him almost daily during the Schiavo case, say he never uttered a peep about it. But he didn't need to. They could see the strain on his face.

"He was a much more serious person when you were around him. It obviously affected him," said longtime friend Patricia "Trish" Muscarella, who was just elected as a circuit judge herself.

"He became more withdrawn because of the case," said his wife. "People, even friends, would say something to him and he would say 'I'm sorry, I can't talk about it.' "

Even now, Greer doesn't say much about the case, although he did make a quip about the time Pat Buchanan called him something derogatory: "Being called that by Pat Buchanan is like being called ugly by a possum."

• • •

Some find no honor in Greer's service.

Bobby Schindler, Terri Schiavo's brother, said in a statement that "for our family, and the millions of people that supported Terri worldwide, Judge Greer's decision to deliberately starve and dehydrate her to death — based largely on hearsay testimony — is anything but honorable."

Greer's rulings, he said, inspired the family to form the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network "for those brain-injured persons like Terri, so their individual rights can be protected from similar judges."

Christopher Ferrara of the American Catholic Lawyers Association said judges should realize that "the sanctity of human life takes precedence."

Greer said he was not surprised that people disagreed with him. But he was astonished at how many lawmakers who were also lawyers tried to legislate their way around his court rulings. He said lawyers should know that one branch of government is not supposed to trample another.

Greer's refusal to back down from his original ruling in the face of enormous pressure led the Clearwater Bar Association to name an award for him: the George W. Greer Judicial Independence Award.

The attorney announcing the award in 2005 said: "In Clearwater, we have been in the vortex of the greatest assault on judicial independence that most of us have seen in our lifetime."

True to form, Greer gave no speech.

>>FAST FACTS

Pinellas-Pasco Judge George Greer

Age: 68.

Education: Graduate of St. Petersburg Junior College and Florida State University, received University of Florida law degree.

Public service: Elected to the Pinellas County Commission in 1984 and as a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge in 1992.

Personal: Married with two grown sons.

Future plans: Become a mediator.

Judge George Greer retires with dozens of awards for one case: Terri Schiavo 01/01/11 [Last modified: Sunday, January 2, 2011 12:15pm]

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