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Courtroom slights fuel battle for Hillsborough judge seat

Circuit Judge Elizabeth Rice is one of two Hillsborough judges facing opposition in the Aug. 24 primary. Her foes complain she’s rude and elitist — and she makes weird faces.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Circuit Judge Elizabeth Rice is one of two Hillsborough judges facing opposition in the Aug. 24 primary. Her foes complain she’s rude and elitist — and she makes weird faces.

TAMPA — Hillsborough Circuit Judge Liz Rice barely remembers a courtroom exchange from last summer that now looms large in the effort to unseat her.

A lawyer says Rice refused to reschedule an upcoming trial that conflicted with his wife's due date. The judge, a mother of two, is fairly certain that she showed more sensitivity toward the lawyer's situation.

Barry Cohen wasn't there and has never argued a case before Rice, but the fellow lawyer's story incensed him. He can't stand it when judges act superior.

So what did Cohen do?

He opened his checkbook and threw the considerable weight of his support behind Rice's opponent.

• • •

Some of the gripes surfacing against Rice in her re-election campaign sound like middle school gossip: She makes weird faces. She rolls her eyes. She has bad hair.

Her critics sniff that she is an elitist borne of silk-stocking firms. They find her unreasonable. They don't like her tone, her rules or how she treats people. How she treats them.

"She talks to all of the lawyers like children," said Joe Registrato, a divorce lawyer who has handled cases in the family law division where Rice currently presides. "Most of us have been doing this a lot longer than she has."

Others lawyers disagree with that characterization. They describe Rice as fair and respectful.

"I never saw her be particularly rude or anything like that to another attorney," said Darrell Kropog Jr., a former assistant public defender who spent more than a year in Rice's misdemeanor court. "We were all treated the same.

"I think she treated defendants very well," he added.

That such a debate is taking place at all leaves Rice baffled. Until lawyer Zilia Vasquez filed to run against her in April, the judge thought she was doing a good job.

"I felt like Wonder Woman with the golden bracelets, trying to combat all the stuff people are saying," Rice said. "It's blindsided me. Completely."

Rice, 46, doesn't mind the election process. That is, after all, how she first secured a spot on the bench, having won an open county seat in 2004.

Yet she and County Judge Dick Greco Jr. are the only two jurists who drew opposition this election season in a county where sitting judges rarely do.

She has no pattern of overturned decisions and has not been disciplined by the body that governs judges. Few question her work ethic, and there was no public outcry about her temperament when Gov. Charlie Crist promoted her to the circuit bench last year.

Vasquez, 45, is a first-time candidate who handles criminal defense, family law and immigration cases in a solo firm. She said she has no personal issues with Rice or her rulings; the only time Vasquez has appeared before her was to cover someone else's case.

She said she chose to run against Rice for a "multitude of reasons."

"I am much more qualified," she said, "and I'm going to do a better job on the bench if I win."

• • •

Rice resides in South Tampa and has a healthy bank account. She enjoys the benefits of her husband's membership at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club.

Still.

"Elitist?" she asked. "Are you kidding me?"

She and her lawyer husband, whom she met as a preteen in Dade City, live in the same house they bought 20 years ago. She drove a 13-year-old Toyota Avalon until splurging on a Lexus this spring.

She mows her own lawn and wears 6-year-old suits. She paid her way through college and law school at the University of Florida.

"I just worked really, really hard to get here," she said.

She admits to being both formal and a stickler for the rules, maybe too much so when she first joined the bench.

"I've made it my goal to try to know more about the law, more about the rules, because I don't want to be taken advantage of as a judge," she said.

To the daughter of an Air Force father and the product of big firms that handled commercial law and bankruptcy cases, rules are what she knows. Rules even the playing field.

"The rules are a great neutralizing factor," she said. "You can do well in my court if you know the rules and abide by them."

If anything, this campaign has taught her to try to be more aware of how others might interpret what she does and how she does it. Like back when she was a lawyer and a judge chewed her out for rolling her eyes during a hearing.

She didn't even realize she had.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Courtroom slights fuel battle for Hillsborough judge seat 08/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 7, 2010 11:33pm]

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