Pinellas-Pasco judicial race is heating up

A young man cussed in the courtroom and complained about his defense attorney, but Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Michael Andrews would have none of it.

"Everybody's at fault for what happened to Maurice," the judge snapped back to the young man. "The lawyer f----- you today. This is the lawyer screwing you. Who else has screwed you, Maurice?"

Andrews went on to tell Maurice that if he wanted to control his own life, he needed to stay away from crime.

This courtroom exchange came nearly a decade ago, but in some ways it illustrates the controversy that now surrounds Andrews as he campaigns to keep his job.

Critics say Andrews can be harsh and arrogant. They claim he has stepped over the line by making inappropriate comments or by failing to follow proper legal procedures. Andrews has spent 13 years as a judge, but is running for election for the first time because of a challenge from veteran defense attorney Deborah Moss.

Supporters say Andrews is a committed, passionate judge who works tirelessly in and out of the courtroom to steer young people away from the criminal life. His efforts won him the Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice's Distinguished Judicial Service Award in 2008.

The campaign has become all the more interesting because Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger has taken a public stand, saying in an interview that "I feel very strongly about him not having the judicial temperament that he should have." On the other hand, Pinellas Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe has endorsed Andrews, who used to work for him as a prosecutor.

If all that weren't enough to consider, there's another aspect as well: Andrews is the only African-American circuit judge for the Pinellas-Pasco district, and also the only incumbent circuit judge facing a challenge. Moss said she supports diversity on the bench, but still felt it was important for her to run in this race.

Andrews, 46, acknowledged in a recent interview it was not proper decorum for him to use the F-word in that hearing several years ago.

"It's never appropriate to use such a word in the courtroom," he said. But he said it came out of his passion for saving young lives: "I was trying to reach Maurice on Maurice's level."

• • •

Moss, 52, spent 13 years as an assistant public defender and another decade as a defense attorney in private practice.

She does not directly criticize Andrews. But she does say she decided to run for this seat because several lawyers asked her to, and she acknowledged that several complained about Andrews being rude in the courtroom. In all her public statements, she stresses that she has the temperament to be a good judge, and to treat all people with respect.

Among the criticisms of Andrews:

• He was accused of having told an assistant state attorney to "grow a pair" — purportedly because he didn't like a settlement offer. But Andrews said the allegation came from a lawyer who wasn't even in his courtroom when the exchange supposedly took place. Andrews said the phrase he used to the prosecutor was that "He needs to get some guts and make an offer."

Even that was over the line, Andrews acknowledged recently. So, he said, he immediately apologized to the prosecutor, who took no offense. The prosecutor, Scott Tremblay, in a recent interview, did not give the exact wording of Andrews' comment, but said he saw it as a joke. He said Andrews is an excellent judge.

"He's fair, he's very consistent and he's also very effective," said Tremblay, now in private practice.

• In the case of "Maurice," Andrews not only used the F-word but also asked an official court reporter to stop typing while he spoke to the young man. The exchange is captured on a recording obtained by the St. Petersburg Times, but Maurice's last name and the exact spelling of his first name could not be determined by the newspaper.

Andrews said he went off the record without any objection from Maurice's attorney, and with the intention of speaking frankly to help him learn that the only way to keep control of his life is to stay away from crime.

"Maybe I tried just a little too much," Andrews said.

• Dillinger pointed to some hearings in county court, nearly a decade ago, when he said Andrews did not remind defendants of their constitutional right to be represented by an attorney at every important stage. Andrews expressed strong doubts that he had done any such thing and questioned Dillinger bringing up old material.

Dillinger says that in general, Andrews does not show people proper respect in the courtroom. Dillinger said it was not easy to speak out, given that his assistants appear before Andrews.

But, he said, "people deserve to be treated with respect, whether it's a defendant, a victim, they should all be treated with respect."

Told of Dillinger's comments, Andrews said: "I'm a firm and fair judge. Mr. Dillinger doesn't like judges who don't do what he wants."

But he also said that he is a strong supporter of the lawyers in the public defender's office, and that he would continue to treat them fairly in court.

The Andrews-Moss race is one of five contested circuit judge elections in the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit. The election is Aug. 24.

Curtis Kruger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or ckrueger@sptimes.com.

Pinellas-Pasco judicial race is heating up 07/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 30, 2010 11:41pm]

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