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Hillsborough judge recuses himself from DUI case

Judge Ronald Ficarrotta
said he wanted
“to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”

Judge Ronald Ficarrotta said he wanted “to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”

In 14 years on the bench, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta has heard countless alcohol-related cases.

But a mention of Mothers Against Drunk Driving on his judicial Web page recently made one defendant question how fair Ficarrotta could be.

The man, accused of drinking before a crash that killed his passenger, worried that Ficarrotta might be swayed by his connection to MADD. He wanted the judge off his case.

It might sound like a fine point — who isn't against drunken driving? — but legal experts say the unusual request raised a legitimate concern about judges' off-duty affiliations.

"You've just got to be real circumspect about the things that you're engaged in," Pinellas Circuit Judge Philip J. Federico said. "When you're making decisions about someone's liberty, that tends to make them a little more sensitive to what your thought process is."

While judges are supposed to avoid activities that cast doubt on their impartiality, the authors of judicial canons realized it was "neither possible nor wise" for members of the bench to live in isolation.

Non-binding ethics opinions demonstrate how tricky it can be for judges to navigate community involvement. Yes, they can serve as celebrity waiters for charity. But, no, they can't sit on a domestic violence council that becomes an advocacy group.

Questions often arise over MADD, now the nation's largest victim's advocacy organization.

National MADD rules prohibit the organization from contributing to judges' political campaigns. But members lobby lawmakers for stiffer DUI penalties and attend court hearings to support victims.

Attorney Stephen Romine doesn't have a problem with MADD's mission or Ficarrotta.

But when he took over Anthony Urso's alcohol-related vehicular homicide case last month, the Tampa attorney and his client noticed a worrisome combination:

On the bench sat the felony judge whose Web page mentioned MADD involvement.

In court with the victim's family sat Becky Gage, a widely known MADD advocate who monitors such hearings.

Romine filed a motion to disqualify Ficarrotta.

"I'm sure he didn't have any intent when he put it in there," Romine said of the Web reference. "But the fact of the matter is it's extremely reasonable for a person facing this kind of charge to be concerned."

The state's Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee considers MADD an "advocacy group" but has never called for an absolute ban of judicial participation. Advisory opinions have approved of judges participating in a panel discussion about underage drinking and attending candlelight vigils for victims of impaired drivers as long as the judges did not get special recognition.

The committee stopped short of saying no judges could serve on MADD's board of directors, but cautioned that the leadership role could be problematic for county judges who routinely hear drunken driving cases.

"It would be virtually impossible for a judge to lock themselves in a box outside the courtroom and not have any involvement with any community activities," said Don Murray, state director for MADD. "That's why the process for recusal is there."

Judges can voluntarily remove themselves from cases where they see a conflict.

Assistant State Attorney Kim Seace, who is prosecuting Urso's case, argued in a motion that he had not demonstrated a well-founded fear of actual bias.

But on March 11, Ficarrotta found Romine's motion legally sufficient and removed himself from the case.

The judge also deleted MADD and all his other community activities, including the Kiwanis Club and United Way, from his judicial Web page.

Why?

"To avoid even the appearance of impropriety," Ficarrotta said. "I can certainly see why a defendant would be concerned about that."

He said he never had much contact with MADD, which the organization confirms. Years ago, he attended a couple of memorial vigils and dinners honoring law enforcement. Like many of his other community listings, the MADD item was outdated, the judge said.

No criminal judges in Pinellas, Pasco or Hernando counties are actively involved with MADD.

If they were, Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger would be quick to protest. As a private attorney in the early 1990s, he questioned why Pinellas County used taxpayer money to send MADD official notice of all felony DUI cases, a practice that continues today.

"You cannot be a member of a group that advocates a certain position and then you're supposed to be a neutral arbitrator," Dillinger said. "Judges need to be neutral."

Circuit Judge Gregory Holder, Hillsborough's only other jurist with a known MADD connection, cut ties after learning of Romine's motion.

Holder, who also hears felony cases, writes a monthly column in a biker magazine and had said publicly that he donated the $50 check for each column to MADD. He made four donations but won't make any more.

"I don't want to provide any basis that's grounds for disqualification," he said.

Gage, MADD's victim advocate in Hillsborough, doesn't think all the fuss is necessary.

She has never seen Ficarrotta or Holder demonstrate bias against accused impaired drivers, she said. She called the motion to disqualify Ficarrotta "a shame."

"No matter what division they're in, they will have their personal feelings and opinions about things," Gage said. "I think that they can put their personal feelings aside and do what's right."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Hillsborough judge recuses himself from DUI case 03/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2008 1:03pm]
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