TAMPA — Five of the 10 federal district judges assigned to the Sam M. Gibbons Courthouse could stay home all day without going broke.
They could retire from judicial office at full pay. Instead, they work, even after replacements arrive, in what appears to be the opposite of public employees playing golf on the clock.
One of them, William Castagna, turned 90 last month. Old? Tell that to the drug dealer half his age whom Castagna sentenced to life 10 months ago.
The depth of the bench became especially apparent July 1, when another judge transferred in. Charlene E. Honeywell, 56, had served in Hillsborough County's judiciary before President Barack Obama tapped her to be a U.S. District Court judge.
She was appointed in 2009 to fill a vacancy created when Susan Bucklew reached senior judge status. But Bucklew is still on the bench at 72, as is the judge whose senior status led to Bucklew's hire 21 years ago: Castagna.
Senior status — a product of age, tenure and personal choice — allows judges to shape the quantity and quality of cases they take. And the district gets to hire a replacement judge, just as if an acting judge had retired from judicial office.
There's an economic incentive to stay.
Senior judges can still get salary increases. (The annuity of a fully retired judge freezes at retirement.) Senior judges don't have to pay Social Security or Medicare taxes and may draw Social Security.
The system also clears a path for rising judges like Honeywell.
Though her ascension to the federal bench was born out of Bucklew's vacancy, Honeywell didn't get first dibs on a Tampa seat. She was stationed in Fort Myers and then Orlando. But another seat opened up in Tampa in March because James Moody Jr. attained senior status. By then, Honeywell had the rank to take Tampa, and two newer district judges drew spots in Orlando.
She welcomed a chance to return to the legal community she knows so well.
"I'm not a native, but I've been in Tampa since 1985," she said. Her 2009 investiture ceremony was at Tampa Theatre and she has kept a home in Hillsborough.
Her arrival doesn't mean that Moody, 67, is going away, nor does he seem to be cutting back.
"Judge Moody has elected to take a full caseload, which will give our Tampa district judges some relief from their heavy dockets," said Anne Conway, the Orlando-based chief judge for the Middle District of Florida.
Moody's senior judge colleagues — Bucklew, Castagna and Richard Lazzara — reduced their caseloads, but Conway said all three still make "significant contributions" to the court.
Castagna, with the lightest load, has presided over at least 28 new criminal cases since Jan. 1, court records show.
Senior status is right around the corner for Chief Judge Conway, too. She says she expects to take it next year, as her seven-year chief judge term ends. (Next in line to be chief is Steven Merryday of Tampa.)
The Middle District, which includes the Tampa Bay area, stretches from Naples to Georgia and encompasses 35 of Florida's 67 counties. District judges are appointed by the president.
"Our district has a case- load that would justify 21 district judgeships but we are only authorized 15," Conway said.
Senior judges aren't counted in the 15. Nine active district judges are stationed in Orlando, Jacksonville and Fort Myers.
District judges currently earn $199,100 a year. Retirement is guided by a sliding scale known as a "rule of 80": They may retire to senior status or retire from judicial office at age 65 with 15 years of experience, or at age 70 with 10 years of experience, or a combination in between.
For instance, Judge Lazzara was 66 with just over 14 years on the bench when he took senior status in 2011.
The fifth judge who could qualify for retirement, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich, never took senior status. By remaining an active judge, she said, she retains a larger staff.
"We've been working together so many years, it's like a well-oiled machine," she said.
Now 77, she recalls the day President Ronald Reagan called.
" 'I want to nominate you and I want to know if you'll accept,' " she remembers him saying.
"I told him I would do this job to the best of my ability for the rest of my life."
Contact Patty Ryan at email@example.com or (813) 226-3382.