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Hillsborough juvenile court judge reassigned to Plant City

TAMPA — Tracy Sheehan, a passionate, Harley-driving judge who once donated $100,000 from her retirement fund to build a children's shelter after surviving cancer, has lost her job in juvenile court after a war of words with the Public Defender's Office.

Besides reassignment to the satellite courthouse in Plant City, Sheehan faces a 25-page complaint that she abused her authority. It was sent to the state Supreme Court this week by Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt.

Those are the repercussions of a dispute over a boy in her court last week both she and the Public Defender's Office were trying to help. In a public dressing-down, Sheehan had called Assistant Public Defender Kay Murray "an inept supervisor and mean-spirited individual who publicly berates her underlings." Sheehan also issued an order recusing herself from any cases involving Murray.

Manuel Menendez, the 13th Judicial Circuit's chief judge, said Friday that he hadn't formed an opinion on who was right or wrong, but because of Murray's involvement in so many of Sheehan's cases, he was stuck with a "logistical issue."

Menendez said he had been planning to move a judge to the satellite courthouse in Plant City to help out with the growing caseload there in family court. By moving Sheehan, he said, he could solve two problems.

On Thursday, he issued an order creating a new "East Circuit Division T" for civil actions, domestic relations and family law actions. Effective Aug. 6, Sheehan will work there.

In the meantime, she is swapping jobs with family law Judge Caroline Tesche in the downtown Tampa courthouse. Tesche will take over Sheehan's bench in juvenile court on Monday.

Menendez acknowledged Sheehan's reputation as a champion for children since her election as judge in 2007. "She has great passion for children's issues," he said, "but family law is all about children. She is still in the arena."

Holt declined to comment Friday on her complaint to the state Supreme Court.

But the complaint describes in detail Sheehan's dispute with Murray. It involved a boy whom the Department of Juvenile Justice had recommended for placement in a "moderate risk" facility. But the department later decided he would be better served in a "low risk" facility.

Making that happen would take several days. In the meantime, everyone wanted to keep the boy in detention rather than send him home. Sheehan and two public defenders debated a way to keep him — having him sign a statement that going home posed a "physical threat" to his safety.

Later in the day, Murray and other senior attorneys for the Public Defender's Office said such a statement would "perpetrate a fraud on the court."

Sheehan then chastised Murray for not speaking out earlier and then "second-guessing your own attorneys." She said Murray had caused an "unmitigated debacle." (The boy ended up in a moderate-risk facility.)

Murray filed a motion asking Sheehan to recuse herself from the case. Sheehan responded by recusing herself from any case involving Murray.

In Holt's complaint to the Supreme Court, Holt wrote, "Judge Sheehan's blanket order disqualifying Ms. Murray … exceeds her jurisdiction and constitutes an encroachment upon the constitutional authority of the Florida Supreme Court to regulate the practice of law and the discipline of attorneys."

This week, Murray appeared in Sheehan's court every day through Wednesday.

The judge recused herself in eight cases.

Sheehan was recently re-elected without opposition to another six-year term.

On Friday, Sheehan said that her reassignment to Plant City was "Judge Menendez's prerogative."

John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or jbarry@tampabay.com.

Hillsborough juvenile court judge reassigned to Plant City 06/29/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 30, 2012 1:13am]
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