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Over 34 years, Hillsborough judge saw it all

The lawyer couldn't help himself, the way lawyers sometimes can't.

The judge told him not to approach a certain subject in front of the jury again, but he kept taking another shot. Finally, Hillsborough Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett, the most unflappable of unflappable men, had enough. He leaned forward.

"Son," he said, in that quiet, rumbly voice more intimidating than any gavel bang, "you're pulling on the tail of the tiger. And he's about to roar." And the lawyer shut up.

After 34 years of looking out at murderers, sex offenders and the occasional innocent defendant in his courtroom, Hillsborough's longest-sitting judge retires in January. That's a must in Florida at age 70, but it's hard to imagine Padgett not there.

He came to the criminal bench from civil court, though some judges consider the world of big-money cases, high-powered lawyers, billable hours and general lack of bloodshed a place to land, not leave. To Padgett, criminal court was real life.

Some call him a pro-prosecution judge, and some prosecutors disagree — probably a good sign all around.

• • •

A defendant who just heard his sentence was protesting. "Five years!" he said. "Judge, I can't do five years!"

"Well," Padgett said levelly, "just do the best you can."

• • •

Fellow judges always sought his counsel, as did reporters trying to understand the law, something he loved to talk about.

Once, a reporter asked how he felt about not drawing an opponent for re-election. "I might buy a six-pack of Heineken tonight," the judge said, a quote that made the paper.

His newspaper clips fill four fat binders — serial killer Oscar Ray Bolin, Valessa Robinson, Debra Lafave — but the headline-makers weren't what most interested him. He remembers a fellow shot in the head who used that wound to write his assailant's name in blood on the sidewalk — D-A-V-E. You cannot make up the stories that play out in a courtroom .

• • •

The prosecutor kept objecting to the defense lawyer's question, asked and answered. The judge, twirling a paper clip, considered. He had a way of looking at the ceiling that might make you think he wasn't paying attention. You would be wrong.

"Yep," the judge told the defense lawyer. "You're in a cul-de-sac, and you need to get out."

• • •

Do not expect Padgett to fish his retirement away. He is a traveler, interested in trade, commerce, ships, ports and trains. He once told me he thought of writing a children's book following a newly minted penny all the places it might go.

Maybe he'll teach English to children overseas. Maybe he'll even join the Peace Corps. It is good news he is also expected to work as a senior judge.

Whenever you said to him, boy, judge, what a long trial this is, or when will this boring jury selection be over, he was always steady, a man in a job he loved. "If we weren't doing this," he always said, "we'd be doing something else," and then he was headed back to the bench, where he belonged.

Over 34 years, Hillsborough judge saw it all 12/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 5, 2008 6:47pm]
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