Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Editorial: A proud moment for civic involvement in Hillsborough County


    It took private citizens less than 24 hours to do what their elected leaders in Hillsborough County could not for the past three months: Find the moral fortitude and the money to move a century-old Confederate war memorial from outside the county courthouse. Thursday's achievement was a lesson in leadership to county …

    The Hillsborough County Commission dithered for three months over moving the Memoria in Aeterna monument from the old county courthouse.
  2. Fort Myers woman arrested for doing cocaine off iPhone in parent pick-up line

    Bizarre News

    A Fort Myers woman was arrested Tuesday after police saw her snorting cocaine off her iPhone while in the parent pick-up line at a Lee County middle school.

    Christina Hester, 39, faces two different drug-related charges, according to police records. [Lee County Sheriff's Office]
  3. Tropical Storm Harvey forms in Atlantic


    UPDATE: At 5 p.m. the National Hurricane Center said a hurricane hunter plane had determined that Tropical Storm Harvey had formed with sustained winds of 40 mph.

    Three tropical waves are expected to strengthen as they move across the Atlantic Ocean. [Courtesy of the National Hurricane Center]
  4. Editorial: Pinellas should join lawsuit challenging new state law


    The Florida Legislature has been on a cynical, constitutionally dubious quest to render local school boards powerless. The most direct assault is a new state law that strips school boards of much of their authority when it comes to the creation and funding of charter schools. It's time for the Pinellas County School …

  5. Editorial: Fix funding unfairness in Florida foster care system


    Many of the children in Florida's foster care system already have been failed by their parents. The last thing these kids need is to be failed by bureaucracy, too, and yet that's exactly what appears to be happening because of a needlessly rigid funding formula set up by the Florida Legislature. Child welfare agencies …

    The Legislature may have had good intentions when it came up with the funding plan, but it’s obvious that there is some unfairness built into it. The funding may be complicated, but the goal is simple: Making sure every child in need gets the help he or she needs.