LAND O'LAKES — If there was a tough case, everyone in Pinellas and Pasco county legal circles knew which judge could resolve it.
"Whatever division he was in," Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip J. Federico said, "they would send it to my dad. He had a knack for understanding how to get people talking."
Philip A. Federico spent 22 years on the bench, rising from county judge to chief judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit. Relatives described him as firm yet compassionate.
"There were times that he would give young people a taste of what to expect if they messed up," said Barbara Federico, his wife of 56 1/2 years. "We're not talking about murderers. We're talking about good kids who may have done something that they may regret. He tried to give them a chance. But if they came back before him, that chance was gone."
Mr. Federico died Friday evening of pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disorder that robs people of the ability to breathe. He was 77.
"I miss him already," his wife said.
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Mr. Federico advocated for the voiceless. He signed a June 1987 order requiring attorneys for people facing a loss of civil rights; more thorough medical examinations for prospective wards; and better checks on the backgrounds and performance of guardians and lawyers. The Florida Supreme Court overturned the measures four months later.
In September 1990, he asked the state to pay for the appointment of the circuit's first public guardian to represent elderly wards who cannot afford to hire their own. He also proposed an expansion of the circuit's guardian ad litem program to provide advocates for children who are embroiled in bitter divorce and child-custody cases.
"Judges don't always put people in jail," Barbara Federico said. "They try to help them, too. He just wanted to help people."
Perhaps Mr. Federico's most enduring legacy, his son said, is the Criminal Justice Center on 49th Street in Clearwater. Mr. Federico and other judges pleaded for a larger space.
"We're totally out of room," he had said in March 1989. "We're scrambling on a temporary basis to make do with what we have."
Mr. Federico was chief judge when the planning and design of the criminal courts complex began. His son, who was elected to his father's former seat in 1994, now hears cases in the $53 million, 22-courtroom facility. The center opened in 1996, two years after Mr. Federico retired.
"The whole idea of it and how it was going to be designed," Philip J. Federico said, "he was involved in that."
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Even in retirement, Mr. Federico continued to work as a civil mediator. "The lawyers had an understanding that was something he was able to do effectively," his son said. "It was really an enjoyable thing for him. He got a good kick out of being able to supplement his retirement."
He worked until last year.
"He's had a rough couple years," Barbara Federico said. "He had prostate cancer and he lost an eye with squamous cancer. They tried to save it but they couldn't."
He was in remission when he learned in February that he had pulmonary fibrosis. Approximately 128,000 Americans suffer from the disorder, but the cause remains a mystery, according to the Coalition for Pulmonary Fibrosis. There is no cure.
Last weekend, Mr. Federico asked his son to take him to Tampa's University Community Hospital. Family members gathered there to say goodbye.
"The things that he believed in, he lived on a daily basis," Philip J. Federico said. "I think that's what all of us who loved him took from the life that he had. He was very consistent and just someone you could count on to be rock solid all the time."
Information from Times archives was used in this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4167.