Hillsborough County Judge Margaret Taylor, I feel your pain. I do.
Like you, I am a proud alum of the University of South Florida (Go Bulls!) Like you, I graduated pre-football. I spent years trudging to friends' games in Tallahassee, Gainesville and Miami, jealous of their traditions and their fun. (Though I never did get that whole painting one's face orange and blue thing.)
Maybe like me, judge, you were happy when we finally got a football team of our own. And all that comes with it, as it turns out.
I'm betting you too were outraged at the latest allegation of a sexual battery by a college athlete, this time by a player who wears green and gold — charges common enough on college campuses these days that people act like they come with the territory.
But your honor, here is where we part ways.
I'm an alum who can say whatever I want about my alma mater. You? You're a judge bound by judicial rules of fairness and impartiality that are critical if the justice system has a prayer of working.
This week, USF junior defensive end LaDarrius Jackson was arrested on charges of sexual battery and false imprisonment. He stands accused of forcing a woman he knew into a sex act in her dorm room.
So there was Jackson in jail scrubs and handcuffs Wednesday for what's generally a routine, even dull first-appearance proceeding to set bail — the first small step on a long road toward however a criminal case will one day end.
Nothing routine about this one.
The judge told the accused that if the allegations are true, his behavior was "nothing short of outrageous." She said she was never ashamed of being a USF graduate until now. "Embarrassed and ashamed, Mr. Jackson," she said, in case you were wondering how she felt.
Then she took on new Bulls coach Charlie Strong. She referenced the recent arrest of a player accused in a violent road rage incident and implored Strong to "think long and hard" about whether he fit at USF "before any other members of this community have to suffer at the hands of one of your players." (Here's a recounting of Coach Strong's actual record on discipline .)
Video of the judge's dressing-down went viral. It caught the eye of ESPN and USA Today, among others. In the ensuing chatter, some people wondered if the judge had been reading prepared remarks as judges sometimes do at sentencing hearings. You know, after a defendant has had his day in court.
Judge Taylor declined to discuss the matter with the Times.
Now it's one thing for a bunch of crusty alums to sit around over beers lamenting, arguing and opining about the state of their school — particularly with charges as serious as these. It's quite another for a judge to sound like she's pre-judging, even if she softens it with a few "if-trues."
Perhaps sensing backlash — Public Defender Julie Holt's office planned to ask for Taylor to be disqualified and hoped to revisit Jackson's $102,500 bail with a new judge — Taylor voluntarily disqualified herself from the case Thursday.
The bottom line: Every person who gets arrested — the stone cold killers, the wrongly accused, the overcharged, the deserving of a break, the blatantly guilty and everyone in between — has a right to be presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.
And the right not to be judged on defendants who came before him.
And the right to at least the appearance that the powerful person presiding is unbiased — no matter how weary or outraged we may be about the kind of allegations we think we've heard before.
That's at the very core of the privilege of wearing the robe — one that is pointedly and neutrally black and not green and gold.
Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]