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Election of chief judge in Pinellas-Pasco circuit will be done in secret

LARGO — Dozens of judges will gather next week to decide an important bit of public business — who should become the next chief judge for Pinellas and Pasco counties.

But if you're a member of the public, don't bother showing up.

That's because this meeting will be private, with no one but judges and two staff members allowed inside.

Although Florida boasts one of the nation's strongest open meeting laws, requiring public sessions even when one city commissioner wants to talk to another about city business, this gathering is not covered by that law, said current Chief Judge Robert J. Morris.

"It's not a public meeting," he said. "It's not open to the public."

Morris turned down a request from the St. Petersburg Times to attend the meeting, saying "it probably would have a chilling effect" if someone other than a judge were there.

Two circuit judges are vying to become chief judge in a race where politicking is considered unseemly. So far it has been a low-key, gentlemanly contest between two courthouse veterans who say they have nothing but admiration for each other.

The winner must get a majority of votes from the 69 county and circuit judges in the two counties. Judges can vote in person at Wednesday's meeting, or submit an absentee ballot.

The fact that the meeting will be conducted behind closed doors is not unique; previous chief judge elections have been closed, both in the Pinellas-Pasco circuit and others.

But it still didn't sit well with Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation.

"I'm sort of astounded that these are closed," she said. "It just flies in the face of the whole sense of open government."

Even if the law doesn't require it, there's no reason why the judges couldn't voluntarily open the meeting, she said.

"Why would selection of a chief judge be any more sensitive or any less worthy of public notice and interest than, say, selecting the chairman of the City Commission? And we have a right of access to that."

Morris countered that if judges realized "that they cannot speak candidly and collegially among only their colleagues, they're going to vote by absentee ballots and there won't be many of them there."

The two chief judge candidates are W. Lowell Bray Jr., 63, who has served on the bench for 27 years and is based in Pasco County; and J. Thomas McGrady. 60, who has been a judge for 10 years and handles civil cases in St. Petersburg.

Both said they agreed with Morris' decision to keep the meeting private.

When judges convene on Wednesday, Bray and McGrady will be formally nominated. They said they don't expect to speechify, because the other judges already know them. Someone else could be nominated, but it's not expected.

The campaign, if that's even the right word, has been genial.

Bray and McGrady both say they would be happy to work with the other, should they not win. Neither is inclined toward intense campaigning or arm-twisting, and said it wouldn't be welcomed by the other judges anyway.

Bray has made no campaign promises, except to use his leadership experience to help the court system.

In an e-mail to other judges, he said he was not planning to schedule individual meetings with them, "nor do I intend to electioneer, to politic, or to make any type of political deal."

McGrady also sent an e-mail to his fellow judges and talked to some of them, but otherwise "there's no yard signs or refrigerator magnets" in this campaign. He said he'd use a consensus-style of decisionmaking, but is willing to make tough calls if the situation demands.

Previous elections have been more intense, however, with candidates and their surrogates lining up support blocs.

The chief judge is an important position, although the job is not exactly as it sounds.

The chief judge is not the boss of the other judges. He cannot hire or fire other judges, discipline them, or change so much as a comma in their written orders.

There's no salary incentive, either. The chief judge makes $145,080 a year, the same salary as other circuit judges.

Instead, the chief judge plays an administrative role, deciding which judges will serve in criminal, civil or family courts, or specialty areas such as drug court. The chief judge also works on larger issues affecting the court system. Morris, for example, won accolades for helping to reduce overcrowding at the Pinellas County Jail.

Morris recently was named to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, and will be leaving the Pinellas-Pasco bench later this summer.

Election of chief judge in Pinellas-Pasco circuit will be done in secret 06/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 12:20pm]
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