Hillsborough judicial race takes contentious turn

TAMPA — The state Supreme Court's Code of Judicial Conduct cautions candidates in judicial races to "maintain the dignity appropriate to judicial office." It sets judicial races apart. It means candidates for judge seldom duke it out, at least not publicly. It tends to make their campaigns dull and dry, with more talk about things like court administration than about hot cases or personalities.

But the race between Hillsborough County Judge Ann Ober, 55, and her challenger, attorney John Grant III, 43, is this year's exception.

In a recent mail-out to voters, Ober cites reports that Grant made obscene calls when he was 19, that he has had three DUI arrests, and that he once struck a police officer. She also accuses him of lying on an elections document and she cites a report that he finished near the bottom of his law school class.

Grant says the mail-out "has no regard for time frame." He says there are regretful things that happened during bad patches in his life, things he has overcome and discusses in an emotional video on his own website.

He says his low class ranking at the Stetson University School of Law (116 out of 124) was due to his participation in a national courtroom competition that brought awards, but not graded credits.

"I chose a path of study that gave me practical experience rather than pad my GPA."

Ober says most voters probably don't know Grant well.

She says his name will appear on the ballot as John Grant, rather than his full name, John Grant III. She says voters could easily confuse him with his father, former state Sen. John Grant Jr., who served 21 years in the Legislature.

Candidate Grant's legal problems are years old. A woman complained to the Sheriff's Office about getting an obscene call from Grant 24 years ago when he was 19. Two of his DUI arrests occurred in 1990. During one of those arrests, he reportedly struck and threatened an officer. A third DUI arrest occurred in 2002.

In 1990, he was convicted of one count of DUI and the other DUI was reduced to reckless driving. He got probation. In 2002, the DUI was dropped to reckless driving, adjudication was withheld and there was no probation.

Grant says he has since turned to his faith for redemption, becoming a good father and husband, building up his law practice and mentoring young lawyers.

Ober's mail-out includes a recent issue — that Grant checked "no" on a judicial nominating form when asked if he had ever refused a test to determine if he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In her mail-out, she calls that a lie. He calls it an oversight.

Florida's Judicial Qualifications Commission offers mostly vague guidelines to judicial candidates about what they can say about other candidates.

The commission refuses to review campaign materials before they're published. It gets involved only after a complaint is filed.

"That means if you're going to make a targeted comment, do it with major caution," says Pinellas County Judge Deborah Vaccaro, who serves on the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee for the 6th Judicial Circuit, covering Pinellas and Pasco counties. Vaccaro conducted an ethics seminar this year for judicial candidates in Hillsborough.

Candidates are advised to follow the broad guidelines of Canon 7, the part of the Code of Judicial Conduct that applies to campaigns. Canon 7 says candidates cannot "knowingly misrepresent the identity, qualifications, present position or other fact concerning the candidate or an opponent."

In 2004, the Ethics Advisory Committee expanded on the meaning of Canon 7:

"A candidate may criticize an opponent only if it is fair and truthful; is pertinent and material to the judicial office; is based on factual, not personal, grounds; is not about a pending case; and does not bring the candidate's impartiality or that of the judiciary into question."

Ober says she has followed Canon 7 to the letter, that everything she said is truthful and relevant to Grant's candidacy. If the mail-out seems unusual in a judicial race, she says it's because judges rarely face opponents with arrest histories.

"These things are seriously important character flaws," she says. "Voters should know them. Judges are held to the highest standard of integrity."

Grant says her accusation that he lied on the election form is a misrepresentation. Elections officials have never accused him of lying. But he has not filed a formal complaint.

"I don't want the mailer and my reaction to it to become a feature of this election," he says. "I'll accept the results of the people. I will lose this race and still have my integrity before I win without it."

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

Hillsborough judicial race takes contentious turn 07/27/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 28, 2012 1:19am]

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