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When a judge gets breast cancer, her husband takes up the gavel


Just before Pinellas County's Drug Court started one morning last week, a lawyer caught Judge Dee Anna Farnell in a back hallway and asked how she was doing.

"I don't know," she said, "my hair's starting to come out today."

Minutes later, after a guest speaker gave a short and poignant talk about the teenage daughter he lost to a drug overdose, Farnell stood up and told dozens of defendants in her courtroom she had news to share.

Everyone in drug court knows Farnell is not a sit-at-the-bench kind of judge. She prefers to stand up front, among the defendants who are trying to break their addictions, where she can shake hands and cheer people on. Or scold them and send them to jail. Farnell has been hugged there, even been kissed there.

So on this morning, she had to explain why she was changing that approach.

"I'm not going to be able to do what I usually do, shake your hand, pat you on the back, high-five some of you," she said.

"October, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And November, I had surgery. And I've already had my first chemo and I'm hoping that my hair will not fall out in front of you, okay? But today could be a really bad indication of what's to come."

She told them she was cancer-free, and the whole courtroom clapped, but then she said chemotherapy over the next few months would weaken her immune system.

Because of the infection risk, she can't shake hands and hug like she used to. It means she'll have to remain in a place she doesn't like — her bench.

That is, when she feels well enough to come in. But on other days, when she's too sick, the court system will need a substitute judge in drug court.

That's where her husband comes in.

Crockett Farnell, 72, is a retired circuit judge who now serves as a "senior judge," essentially a substitute.

Dee Anna Farnell, 58, met him when she was an assistant public defender, and she practiced before him.

"He scared the hell out of me," she said. "He was sending my people to prison left and right."

They married in 1990.

Dee Anna Farnell ran for a judicial seat in 1994. She won, and they became an unusual two-judge couple.

And now, the judges are taking care of each other, in sickness and in health. Crockett Farnell has started filling in as needed for his wife in drug court, working a day here and a day there. She'll have a total of six chemo treatments, followed by a period of radiation treatment.

• • •

One Farnell may be filling in for another, but that doesn't mean there's no difference.

Dee Anna Farnell is a nurturing sort who urges her defendants to improve their health by giving up cigarettes and joining her running the St. Petersburg Times Turkey Trot. She likes to think of drug court as "Health Court."

Crockett Farnell is the sometimes brusque former Marine who gained a measure of fame after threatening to throw the state's Department of Children and Families administrator in jail, prompting then-Gov. Jeb Bush to complain of his "temper tantrum."

No one's going to mistake one Farnell for the other.

"She'll go down and give them a hug," Crockett Farnell said. "I ain't doing that."

He said one defendant recently asked when "the other judge" was coming back.

With her husband on the bench, "I think they're going to love me that much more," Dee Anna Farnell quipped.

• • •

Dee Anna Farnell is a dedicated runner who has completed 15 Boston Marathons and rarely takes a sick day. A lot of her friends think she's the healthiest person they know. She's upset that she can't run Boston this spring.

She says she looked at herself in the mirror this summer and saw that something wasn't quite right, so her husband encouraged her to get a mammogram. That led to a biopsy, which led to her diagnosis of breast cancer. After a partial mastectomy in November, she was cancer-free.

But an advanced diagnostic test indicated the cancer was likely to return. To kill it, she needed more treatment.

The thought of chemotherapy was frightening, she said, and she hated "to know that I was going to ingest poison."

But she started chemotherapy this month. She said she was making the best choice for her health overall, just as she encourages addicts to make the best choice for their health.

"So much of what I'm going through ... parallels what my people are going through," she said.

She said she has found herself in tears at unexpected times, and fatigued at times; she took a brief nap on a couch in her judicial chambers one recent afternoon.

"That's one of the things I'm learning about cancer," she said. "You can't control it. It's going to do what it wants."

But Farnell does what she wants, too. She has reduced her running, but despite her sickness, still manages 20 to 25 miles a week.

She said she has been relying on colleagues, friends and the support of her Episcopalian church.

"I know how to get ready for marathons," she said. Getting ready to battle cancer is a different matter, she said, "but I'm going to try."

When a judge gets breast cancer, her husband takes up the gavel 12/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 27, 2011 11:09pm]
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