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Circuit Judge Jack Springstead brought honor to bench

Jack Springstead is from an old Brooksville family, graduated from Hernando High and got his law degree from the University of Florida — a flawless resume for anyone who wants to step into a position of power around here.

And he did, 20 years ago, when he was appointed to the job of Hernando County circuit judge.

He could have kicked back a little bit. Nobody in town would have said anything if he didn't know the complete criminal history of every small-time drug dealer in his court. His reputation wouldn't have suffered if he spent a few afternoons on the golf course. When his retirement rolled around — as it did last week — he would have still been hailed as a great guy.

In other words, Springstead could have been a good old boy, a local big shot with modest accomplishments and a jumbo sense of entitlement. But this is the best thing about Springstead: He chose not to be. In fact, if good old boyhood is the same as complacency, he was the anti-good old boy.

Last week, the talk wasn't the standard retirement pap about Springstead being good to his word or how much he loved to hunt and fish, though those things happen to be true.

It was about how he didn't put up with any nonsense in court; about his precise knowledge of the law and the history of his cases; that he treated the people in his court with respect and fairness, but pushed them hard — even jurors.

"He expected everyone to work as hard as he did and to be thoroughly prepared," said longtime Brooksville lawyer Jimmy Brown.

"He wouldn't embarrass anyone because he's a gentleman and because he didn't have to. He just inculcated people with the idea — 'Jack expects that' — and you didn't want to be the one who let him down. The lawyer who says, 'Gee, Judge, I don't know' — you didn't want to be that guy in Jack's court."

The arrival of professionalism

Early in Springstead's career as a circuit judge (he'd previously been a Marine, an assistant public defender and a county judge), it wasn't uncommon for Springstead to keep trials going past midnight. Even in recent years, first-degree murder trials didn't end "at 4:30 or 5 (p.m.)," said homicide prosecutor Pete Magrino. "It would be more like 6 or 8 (p.m.), and there were a couple of nights where we wouldn't wrap up until after 9 o'clock at night. … . The guy was a worker."

I'll go a little further and say that Springstead was to the criminal courts in Hernando County what former Sheriff Tom Mylander — first elected in 1984 — was to law enforcement. Professionalism arrived; the Wild West atmosphere vanished.

Springstead took over the felony docket about a year after the departure of former Circuit Judge L.R. Huffstetler; when Huffstetler died last year, lawyers reminisced about his frequent smoke breaks, his Harley-Davidson, his guns, his parties.

There's something to be said for that style. When I arrived on the court beat shortly after Huffstetler left, there was a definite feeling that I'd missed all the fun. Imagine the news vacuum in Langtry, Texas, without Judge Roy Bean.

But if Springstead didn't make headlines, he did preside over lots of newsworthy cases:

The black men and teenagers charged with killing of 19-year-old Russell Coats, who was white; so-called "granny killer" Edwin Kaprat, who was sentenced to death for murder in 1994 and was later stabbed to death in prison; Tai-Ling Gigliotti, the widow of an acclaimed classical clarinetist, who was convicted of child abuse this year.

Unpopular — but just — rulings

Springstead was best known for handling such criminal cases, but one that burnished his non-good-old-boy credentials was in civil court.

In 2003, Springstead ruled that the Citrus County Commission's approval of a resort planned for a coastal flood zone on the Homosassa River had violated the county's comprehensive plan.

Commissioner Jim Fowler ripped into Springstead, saying, "This is just another example of a judge with marginal skills, unfamiliar with the subject matter, making bad law."

No, that ruling wasn't a bad one, at least not according to the 5th District Court of Appeal, which upheld it. Given that the influence of developers and their pet commissioners doesn't stop at county lines, it was just admirably independent.

So was his handling of the case of Kenny Schreffler, a friend of Coats who had been in the middle of a night of fighting that led to the fatal brawl.

In the old days, in the South, a local judge would have been expected to find in favor of a white defendant in a racially charged case, especially if, as in Schreffler's case, two juries had found him not guilty of battery and disorderly conduct.

Springstead sentenced him to 41/2 years in prison for violating his probation on a gun-theft charge.

"I have no intention of trying a case in the Circuit Court in Hernando County unless it is a jury trial," Schreffler's lawyer, Ellis Faught, said after the trial.

Faught wasn't the only one who thought Springstead's sentences could be unduly harsh. Early in his career, that was his reputation. In 1993, for example, Springstead sentenced child molester Elijah DeZion to 1,325 years in prison, calling him "the epitome of all that society considers evil in homosexual pedophiles."

One-tenth that much time would have been plenty to ensure a life sentence, and I'd say the pedophile part was the problem, not the homosexuality.

But, really, attention-grabbing sentences such as this were rare.

Business as usual, until the end

If defendants, especially young ones, deserved a second chance, Springstead usually gave it to them, said County Judge Don Scaglione, a former prosecutor who said that as a judge he sometimes sought Springstead's advice on juvenile cases.

The guidelines in Gigliotti's case allowed her to be sentenced for as long as 60 years in prison; Springstead gave her 12. Barry Michael Wingrove, 23, who was arraigned on a drug possession charge Tuesday, said he'd been in Springstead's courtroom before. The judge could have sentenced him to jail as a habitual traffic offender, Wingrove said, but gave him probation after hearing that Wingrove had a baby at home.

"He's been nothing but kind to me," Wingrove said.

Unless Springstead, who turns 61 this month, returns in a year as a senior judge, which is a possibility, Wingrove was the last defendant on Springstead's last day on the bench.

Springstead had worked through the docket, as he usually does, at a pace only slightly slower than an auctioneer's, wrapping things up by noon.

He sat for a few interviews, but at his request — "I don't see any reason to celebrate when somebody just does their job," he said — there was no party in his office afterward.

No balloons. No cake. No sense of entitlement.

Circuit Judge Jack Springstead brought honor to bench 12/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 4, 2010 3:39pm]
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