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Sue Carlton: Showing good judgment, judge owns up to mistake

There's this saying: Sometimes it's not what you do, it's what you do after.

Okay, sometimes it's what you do, too. What Hillsborough Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan did, she will tell you, was make the "horrible decision" to drive after she'd had drinks with a favorite cousin in Ybor City last weekend.

This got her arrested and booked like anyone else, got her a night in a cold cell in the county jail, got her mug shot splashed across the news.

Here is what she did after: "I'm mortified at my choice," she told the reporters whom she did not turn away when they came knocking. This was not a mistake, she said, "not like I wore I blue socks with my black pants. This was a colossal lack of judgment."

Here is what the judge did not do: She did not throw a Reese Witherspoon-style, do-you-know-who-I-am hissy fit with police. She did not invoke her position or ask for any special treatment.

"I wish they were all as cooperative," Hillsborough County sheriff's Col. Ken Davis, who runs the jail, told me. "It was actually kind of refreshing to see someone take accounting for their behavior for a change."

Certain savvy lawyers who have handled a DUI or two will tell you that if you suspect you are over the limit, you should not agree to a breath test and should not "blow." Refusing may give you other legal headaches, but if you do not blow, you also do not provide that particular evidence against yourself, the logic goes.

The judge blew.

"I had already made a horrible decision and could not compound it by playing lawyer," she says. (She also described the "blow ladies" at the jail as "nice.") She blew a 0.161 and a 0.171.

Like anyone else, the judge lay on a concrete bench in a cell. She thought about how other people had handled themselves after something like this. She thought of whatever fellow judge would read her name off the docket in the morning.

When they checked on her she assured them: No, not suicidal, just mad at myself. She politely declined the bologna sandwich and used the bathroom right there where people could see. Hey, she thought, this is what you get in jail.

Of course, she had been here before as a lawyer seeing clients. And when you are not incarcerated yourself, you hear with some relief the cha-chunk of the heavy metal doors behind you when you get to leave. That was nothing compared to when she got out now, holding her belongings in a paper bag with SHEEHAN scrawled across it.

Reporters asked: Didn't you know you shouldn't drive that night? "I guess that's a function of alcohol — you don't think that way," she answered. "But I, of all people, should know better."

She says she will plead guilty and do what her sentence requires. She will not attempt to buy out community service hours instead of performing them. She seems most upset at the idea that anyone would think her a hypocrite.

She is popular at the courthouse, friendly but also tough, a petite Harley rider with a piercing stare from the bench. She has long been a fierce advocate for kids both in and out of court.

She knows she will be remembered for what happened, but I think for something else, too: that she was a judge who did something wrong, and then stepped up and owned it.

Sue Carlton: Showing good judgment, judge owns up to mistake 07/09/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 9:32pm]
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