Sue Carlton: A race for judge on their records, DUI and otherwise

The longtime judge, and the lawyer with a record of DUI arrests.

Now here's a phrase you don't hear often in courthouse politics: What an intriguing judicial race, for what it says about them — and about us voters, too.

Hillsborough County Judge Joelle Ann Ober faces attorney John Grant on the upcoming ballot. And no question, contested races are generally good for voters, lest any of our elected officials get too comfy on the public dime.

What's particularly interesting here is Grant's history with the system, both inside and out, and the public airing it's getting.

Grant, a 43-year-old former prosecutor, has been arrested on a DUI charge three times. A female acquaintance complained to authorities that he made obscene phone calls to her back when he was 19.

Our elected county and circuit judges hear criminal, civil and family cases, big headline trials and plenty of others we never hear about. And yes, DUIs. Important matters. And we voters sometimes go down the ballot to the judge races and think:

Who?

This is not purely our fault. These candidates do not tend to stump on how they feel about the death penalty or stand your ground, since the job means following the law. And because of the dignity the position implies, going after the other guy is seen as unseemly. So maybe voters go with the name that sounds best to them — familiar, or female, or judgely, whatever.

Well, forget the aforementioned delicate candidate ballet. In a fight for the job she's held for 16 years, in a mailer that lists her own accomplishments, Ober, 55, cites reports of Grant's record, too.

The mailer also says earlier this year, he incorrectly checked "no" on a judicial nominating form asking whether he ever refused a test to see if he was under the influence.

His DUI arrests, by the way, resulted in one DUI conviction and two reductions to reckless driving.

Ober told me this week she has no regrets. "I believe the voters have a right to know," she said. "Judges are held to a higher standard, and there's a really good reason for that."

For his part, Grant says he has made mistakes, learned hard lessons and matured. (He even says this on an emotional YouTube video.) Checking "no" was a mistake or an oversight without intent, the arrests were back in 1990 and 2002, and the phone calls a stupid college incident, he says.

"Aren't time frames important?" he asked. "Isn't context important?"

Sure, and worth considering.

But we're not talking about details dug up from a messy divorce, or bad acts by a wayward relative. When a candidate has arrests for the very kinds of cases he might hear as a judge, I vote yes for relevance.

Still, with an electorate weary of the barrage of political ads, this race could go down to pure name appeal. She runs as Ann Ober because she says people see "Joelle" and ask where he is. (A female name edge?) Her last name is especially recognizable because of her ex, State Attorney Mark Ober.

And Grant sports the same name as his father, once a well-known, longtime legislator.

But voters can decide on their record — hers as a judge, his as an attorney and otherwise. A more informed decision on who gets to wear the robe gets my vote.

Sue Carlton: A race for judge on their records, DUI and otherwise 08/07/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 8:23pm]

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