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Retiring Hillsborough judges reflect on a much-evolved courthouse

TAMPA — The three Hillsborough County judges retiring from the circuit bench at month's end have 70 years of experience between them.

When they began their careers, white men dominated the professional types at the courthouse. Judges smoked in their courtrooms during recesses.

Times have changed: No one smokes inside anymore. This fall, voters elected five women to the bench.

Judges Frank Gomez and J. Rogers Padgett — who spent 13 and 34 years in office, respectively — leave with reluctance, forced out by mandatory retirement rules. After 23 years as a judge, Barbara Fleischer said she decided it was time to try something new.

The St. Petersburg Times asked Padgett and Fleischer to take a break from packing for a look back on their tenures.

How has the courthouse changed during the time you've worked here?

Padgett: People are generally brighter now, generally more intense about their job. Overall, the criminal justice system is better, no matter which side you're on.

Fleischer: There are a lot more women, which I think is very positive, of course. There are a lot more people of ethnic groups. I think that's probably the most important change.

Have minimum-mandatory sentences, which require judges to give set punishments for certain crimes, made the system more equitable?

Padgett: Mandatory-minimums are a slight insult to the judiciary because the implication is the judiciary can't be trusted to impose a prison sentence. It eliminates judging. It's just numbers.

Fleischer: I understand the reason behind the sentencing guidelines. We come with different philosophies. There was so much discretion, I think people were not always treated equitably. However, I think they've gone way, way too far in taking the discretion out of the system.

I'm not a soft touch. On the other hand, people sometimes need to be given a different sentence because sometimes there is a drug addiction. If you don't deal with that and you just house someone for 10, 15 years, what are they going to be when they come out? They're going to be those same people, only angrier.

There was a flareup earlier this year about underwear showing in the courtroom. Do people still have respect for the judiciary?

Padgett: There's less formality than there was in the '60s, that's for sure. But you find that everywhere, in schools, in offices, in families. I'm more interested in doing justice and keeping things moving than if people say "Yeah" or "Yes, sir." I don't care if someone is wearing shorts or their underwear is showing.

Fleischer: I have never had a bit of trouble. I've always demanded people, when they come in, have their pants pulled up and their shirts tucked in. I run a very tight ship.

Your job requires a lot of listening. Be honest. Have you ever written a grocery list at the bench? How did you stay engaged and focused?

Padgett: Listening is No. 1. Patience is No. 2. (And, no, he says he's never written a grocery list on the bench.)

Fleischer: I don't know about a grocery list, but I'm sure I've made a note to myself. In trial, you just have to pay attention. If you don't pay attention then, my goodness, you stand a chance of making a rule that's not right.

Judges are elected and appointed in Florida. Does this system of picking judges work?

Padgett: I think it's a wash. You get some appointments that are meritorious, and you get some elected who don't deserve to be judges.

Fleischer: There's no perfect system. There are very good quality people who just simply refuse to run.

But I think the appointment system could be improved by changing the makeup of the judicial nominating committees. (She advocates fewer governor appointees and more people from the community on the committees.) I think it's way too weighted politically.

Florida has a mandatory retirement age (70) for judges. Should there also be a minimum age or a greater number of years' experience required to become a judge?

Padgett: I don't feel real strongly about that. You have people who are worthy and capable and people who aren't and never will be. It doesn't matter how much experience they have.

Fleischer: I think Ashley Moody (who was 31 when she was elected to the circuit bench in 2006) is a very good example of that. I think she's turned out to be a fine, fine judge, and I don't know if she had another five years that she'd be a better judge.

There is an argument to be made for more life experience. (But) I don't have a strong opinion about it because I've seen people who had 20 years of experience, and I wouldn't want to go before them.

The courthouse isn't a very happy place. Will you miss it?

Padgett: That's real life. It's the only place in town other than the emergency room where you see adults sob routinely, and that's never easy. (But) those are very difficult things that somebody has to do. Everyone has to have their due process.

There's nothing pretend about it, and there's nobody else who's better prepared to do it than me. It's a real slice of life, (and) I'm a participant.

Fleischer: I think I had the best job in the world. There's very little about the job that wasn't positive for me, even though it was tough at times.

I've truly loved every day I was there. Not all of every day, but I loved my job.

Retiring Hillsborough judges reflect on a much-evolved courthouse 01/03/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 7:27pm]
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