TAMPA — Judges and lawyers packed the Tampa Yacht Club in early 1999 for a sit-down dinner celebrating Judge Thomas E. Stringer Sr.'s prestigious new appeals court job.
The legal community applauded Gov. Jeb Bush's promotion of a jurist who managed to earn admiration despite more than a decade of hearing contentious divorce and custody cases in circuit court.
Even local family law attorneys, who paid for the event, were sorry to see him go.
"He was unbiased in his approach," said Miriam Mason, one of those attorneys. "He treated everyone with respect. He just had no prejudices that he brought to the bench."
That reputation carried over to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, where Stringer, 63, has spent the twilight years of a distinguished career that has included stints as an Air Force captain, a prosecutor, a private attorney, a county and circuit judge, and a law school trustee.
It stands in stark contrast to the public allegations a New York City stripper made this week about some aspects of Stringer's private life.
Christy Yamanaka, 47, says the judge owes her money from an investment they made together on a Hawaiian property and from deposits she made to his bank accounts to keep her earnings out of creditors' reach.
She lives in a New York apartment leased by the judge.
Stringer, who has hired an attorney and a public relations specialist, denies doing anything improper.
He says he was friends with Yamanaka for 15 years and tried to help her when she had financial trouble. He acknowledges the apartment and the real estate partnership but, on the advice of his attorney, isn't willing to elaborate much.
The judge, inducted last year into Stetson University College of Law's hall of fame, has asked that people withhold judgment until all of the facts are known. Many of his peers seem willing to do so.
"This is the first negative thing I've heard about him," said Susan Whaley Fox, a Tampa attorney and former chairwoman of the Florida Bar appellate law section. "He strikes me as somebody who would try to help people and maybe not think about the danger he was putting himself in."
Here is what people say about Stringer: He is bright and attentive, fair and impartial, a judge who bases his rulings on the law and not political ideologies. He is friendly, but not in a glad-handing, seamy politician sort of way.
Those impressions are repeated by people who have interacted with Stringer in a variety of forums.
"I hold him in the highest regard," said attorney William Reece Smith, who has known Stringer for 20 years and sits with him on Stetson's board of overseers.
"I have deep respect for him professionally and as a co-worker," said 2nd DCA Chief Judge Stevan T. Northcutt.
Stringer last faced a merit retention election in 2006 and received a 91 percent approval rating in a Florida Bar poll, the highest level of support for any 2nd DCA judge.
The judge didn't always envision a legal career.
After graduating with a math degree from New York University in his home state, he joined the Air Force with hopes of becoming a pilot.
But he wasn't very good, he said in an interview Friday.
So he moved to Florida and applied to Stetson. In 1971, he became the law school's first black graduate. Each year, he speaks at a youth prelaw conference named in his honor.
Another benchmark followed in 1987, when Stringer became Hillsborough County's first black circuit judge.
He found his niche in the family law division.
"I thought I was helping real people with real problems," said Stringer, who has five adult children and has been married for 25 years to his third wife, Lillian.
His life as an appellate judge has been more anonymous. Stringer hears appeals of cases from a 14-county district that includes Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco.
The judge's colleagues aren't sure what to make of the allegations by Yamanaka, who strips for a living at the upscale Scores East Side club.
She met Stringer when she lived in Tampa and called him years later looking for legal help. She had filed for bankruptcy in Las Vegas in 2000 and faced nearly $315,000 in judgments against her. Stringer suggested she talk to his son Daryl, a Tampa lawyer.
The judge acknowledges that he entered into a real estate investment with Yamanaka in 2004. On Tuesday, he said he couldn't remember whether they put a down payment on the house. He wouldn't say how much money each of them invested.
She says the $440,000 home was purchased with her money but put in Stringer's name because of her debt. She paid rent and lived in the home with her husband at the time. The house sold for $749,000 in December 2006.
Stringer said he "was just helping a friend" when he leased an apartment for Yamanaka last year.
More details, and perhaps the truth, will emerge if Yamanaka follows through with her plan to sue the judge.
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.