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Late Circuit Judge L.R. Huffstetler's colorful style speaks of bygone era in Hernando County

Maybe you think it's all exaggerated. Maybe you don't quite buy the idea that life in Hernando County was so much rowdier just a few decades ago, so much more entertaining.

Then you hear about former Circuit Judge L.R. Huffstetler Jr., who served from 1973 to 1988 and died Friday after years of fighting cancer.

You hear that Huffstetler once sailed his boat to St. Petersburg after granting a change of venue for a murder trial, that he had a Hernando Sheriff's Office patrol car assigned for his use, and that, nearly every evening, used it to stop for a supply of booze.

"So you had this green-and-white Sheriff's Office patrol car going through a liquor store drive-through in the middle of St. Pete,'' said Brooksville lawyer Jimmy Brown.

"Then all the lawyers would meet on the fantail of the boat and have a few cocktails. It was a change-of-venue Huffstetler style."

You hear how, at the same trial, he commandeered a skeleton in the courtroom. When he called the lawyers to the bench to tell them he was dying for a smoke, they looked down to see, jutting from the sleeve of the judge's robe, a hand of bone holding an unlit cigarette.

You hear how, back in Hernando, he sometimes wouldn't wait for a break, but would swivel his high-backed chair to the courtroom "and all you'd see is this thin column of smoke rising to the ceiling,'' said former County Judge Peyton Hyslop.

You hear how he once invited a few friends to his boat to help determine over drinks whether a stack of films were, as prosecutors claimed, pornographic. "And a few of them were,'' said Brooksville lawyer Chip Harp.

You hear how he carried one pistol in his boot, one in his trousers and, when court was in session, laid one on the bench.

You hear how he might commute to work by way of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a Corvette or a van customized with the slogan "have gavel will travel,'' and how the security system he installed was so oppressive (though not much different from the one there now), critics called the courthouse "Fort Huffstetler.''

You hear how he wore burgundy, peach or white (reserved for imposing sentences of death or life in prison) and required the bailiffs and clerks to wear the same.

"We did look really nice up there, everybody color coordinated,'' said retired clerk Dessa Samons.

You hear all this and, yes, you finally believe that life here was, in every sense of the word, more colorful.

But then you also have to wonder whether you really want to live in a county where lawyers had to seriously think about where they would dive if gunfire broke out in the courtroom. And you have to remember that Huffstetler's use of his power wasn't all lighthearted.

For example, he once threatened to jail county commissioners for contempt of court if they didn't find money for his security system. (They didn't, and he ended up paying for it out of his own office's budget.)

So, yes, we're probably better off with our current crop of serious, sober, conventional judges. The public seems to demand it. So do appeals court judges.

The colored robes, the general flamboyance "would be hard to replicate in today's climate,'' Brown said.

"It would, however, be fun.''

Late Circuit Judge L.R. Huffstetler's colorful style speaks of bygone era in Hernando County 06/22/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 22, 2009 6:13pm]
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