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The unexpected race for judge

On the subject of elections, a wise politician I once knew used to opine that the best way to run for office is:

Unopposed.

Probably no one appreciates this more than circuit judges at the Hillsborough and Pinellas courthouses where, once ensconced, they do not often find themselves bothered with having to run for re-election (and even more rarely get the boot.) Generally, they keep the nice robe, good parking space and everyone calling them "your honor" pretty much as long as they like.

(That is, barring scandal involving, say, a steamy affair with a bailiff, getting nabbed snooping in another judge's office or hitting on fellow judges. And no, I did not make those up.)

There are exceptions, like in 2008 when attorney Catherine Catlin bested Hillsborough Circuit Judge Kevin Carey. But this is like a not-guilty verdict in a murder trial — it happens, but not often.

So it is interesting to note that Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe, on the bench 23 years, well-known and oft-quoted, has a challenger in longtime Tampa attorney William Knight. Twenty Hillsborough circuit judges are up for re-election. Yet so far, Tharpe alone must run.

Why him? There is that case Knight recently tried in Tharpe's court: teacher Ethel Anderson, charged with lewd acts on a 12-year-old boy. Tharpe called her "a parent's worst nightmare" and gave her 38 years. Sound harsh? Actually, it was the bottom of the state sentencing guidelines.

Rules on judicial elections pretty much keep candidates from talking about anything interesting besides themselves. Knight — 46, from an old Tampa family that is the namesake to the Peter O. Knight Airport — says he's running to give voters a choice. The judge said he's done a good job and hopes voters will support him in what would be his last term.

At 59, Tharpe has been in the child and sex abuse division five years. Last year he gave a pedophile who molested, held captive and beat young boys 690 years in prison, and no, that is not a typo.

He gets quoted. He called a man who raped a prostitute "a monster." A news story described him cracking his knuckles, staring down a pedophile and calling him "one nightmare that I'm going to put to rest today." That will play well with some voters, and could be too much drama for others.

Judicial races are the odd duck on the ballot. Political observers will tell you voters often don't have time to do the research and know who's running in those end-of-the-ballot races.

Sometimes, the cynical theory goes, maybe a name gets the edge, a Hispanic name or a woman's. (If so, one race for an open seat could be worth watching. Will it be John Dingfelder, interesting name, and wasn't he on Tampa City Council or something? Or Carl Hinson, same last name as a former judge? Or Barbara Twine Thomas, the lone female candidate?)

Sitting judges also don't get the boost of the word "judge" or "incumbent" next to their names on that ballot.

But voters having choices is always better. Even the best public officials, and especially the worst ones, should not get too comfy in that chair we loaned them. Which makes for one interesting if unexpected race, the longtime judge and the challenger. And we get to vote accordingly.

The unexpected race for judge 03/27/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2014 7:30pm]
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