Judge at last, without politics

The dispute in the courtroom is about trees. Dead ones.

There are no lawyers, just two regular people representing themselves. The lady in the pearls says the bushes she paid to have put in her yard promptly died. The landscaper in the T-shirt says he doesn't mind paying for them, but the prices she's quoting seem steep.

The silver-haired judge consults his calculator. "I'm doing a Solomonic issue here," he says, intending to split the difference. T-shirt and Pearls both nod in agreement.

Okay, so it's not prosecuting organized crime in federal court, as he once did. It's not a big-money civil case. But at 63, newly-minted Hillsborough County Judge Herb Berkowitz is happy to be presiding over low-level disputes in county court.

"This is a very meaningful, righteous place," he says. "There is no small case."

The long road getting here makes Berkowitz something of an expert on the contentious issue of appointing versus electing judges in Florida, since he has both run and applied. And applied. And applied.

It would be hard to find a lawyer better qualified. He is a former federal prosecutor with a successful law practice, well-spoken, well-respected, well-liked. When he ran for judge 15 years ago, newspapers endorsed him, local lawyers picked him, the Police Benevolent Association recommended him. He handed out red, white and blue emery boards with his name on them and was questioned on Bible verses by the Family Action Council. He lost. Even then, his opponent said he was "a very fine man."

Over the years, Berkowitz applied for a circuit seat "I think it was 10 times," county court twice, a federal judgeship two or three times. Often, he was a short-list pick for the nominating committee, only to lose at the governor's office. A newspaper reporter (okay, me) took to calling him Susan Lucci for the soap-opera star who could not seem to win an Emmy. He thought this was funny.

Berkowitz has been a politically active guy, a delegate to two Democratic conventions. Did this hurt him? It is, of course, speculation. But if you doubt there is politics in the process, recall the Gov. Jeb Bush administration's behind-the-scenes plan to recruit new judges "ideologically compatible" with the conservative Republican governor.

He figured last year was his final shot. Again, he made the short list. His judicial fate was in the hands of embattled Gov. Charlie Crist, former Republican turned independent.

He was just getting out of the shower when the call came. "Hi, Herb," said the governor, whom he had never met. "I've got some good news." The rest of the conversation is a blur. He went downstairs in his bathrobe and told his wife, Gloria, "This robe really is looking seedy — I think I need a new one." And she knew he'd gotten it. Susan Lucci, with her Emmy at last.

Interestingly, Berkowitz remains a supporter of the appointment process. Voters pick from candidates who, under the rules, can't talk issues. With appointments, he says, candidates go through an extensive vetting process before a knowledgeable nominating committee.

In the end, maybe politics worked in his favor. Or maybe a politician was, for the moment, free to ignore politics. Or maybe he made it on his merits at last.

And sometimes, the good guys win.

Judge at last, without politics 03/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2011 8:26pm]

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