Sunday, December 17, 2017
Politics

Brooksville attorney denies his run for office is an effort to avoid a tough judge

BROOKSVILLE — Hanging on a wall in the lobby of Robert Morris' tastefully decorated downtown office is a small, framed piece of cloth bearing a folksy saying:

A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge.

Now Morris, who has practiced criminal and civil law in Hernando County for two decades, wants to be the judge, and his decision to jump into a judicial race five years before the election has become the talk of the Hernando County courthouse.

Morris, 47, recently filed to run for the 5th Circuit's Group 26 seat, currently held by Circuit Judge Anthony Tatti.

The election is in 2018.

Morris insists he needs the time to raise enough money to be competitive against a sitting judge in a five-county race. But the move has sparked speculation that Morris also wanted to avoid appearing in front of Tatti, who has developed a reputation for being tough on criminal defendants.

Now comes a new twist: Tatti has asked to transfer to a Marion County post that will open when a judge retires later this year.

Because judicial group seats move with the judges in them, a challenger who beats Tatti in 2018 would serve where he is at the time of the election. Tatti lives in Ocala, so it's likely he would stay in the Marion post if he gets the reassignment.

Morris, who lives in north Tampa, is undeterred by the speculation or the prospect of winning a seat elsewhere in a circuit that includes Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties.

"You've heard in the business world to have a five-year plan?" he said. "This is my five-year plan."

• • •

Shortly after filing papers with the state Division of Elections on June 24, Morris visited Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr. to let him know.

Acting in his capacity as Hernando's administrative judge, Merritt signed an order on July 2 recusing Tatti from any case in which the Morris Law Group is a party.

It was Merritt's way to address the obvious conflict of a judge hearing cases handled by his political opponent. The Florida Supreme Court's Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee has long held that "cases involving a political opponent, either as a party or as an attorney, are proceedings in which the judge's impartiality may be questioned, and these proceedings should be handled by another judge."

Merritt's order means criminal defense clients represented by either Morris or his associate, attorney Kristie Ruppe of Brooksville, will not appear in front of Tatti.

Merritt is the only other judge who handles a felony criminal docket in Hernando, so defendants currently represented by Morris have already been shifted to Merritt's docket.

Observers say Morris could see an influx of clients when word gets out that his firm doesn't appear in front of the judge with the tough reputation, particularly when it comes to defendants who have been charged with violating their probation.

"I know other lawyers who routinely appear in front of Judge Tatti who see (Morris' filing to run) as a way to get off his docket, and I've heard other lawyers are considering doing the same thing," said Peyton Hyslop, a Brooksville criminal defense attorney who served as a county judge from 1990 to 2005.

Under the rules of judicial administration, attorneys who want a judge to be recused from a case typically file a motion with the judge in question. The judge considers the request based on its timeliness and legality.

In that respect, Merritt's order is unusual, said Ric Ridgway, chief assistant state attorney for the 5th Circuit. Ridgway, who has worked in Florida since 1978, said he has never seen a blanket recusal order applied to cases that affect the State Attorney's Office.

"This kind of thing could certainly lend itself to abuse," he said. "It could be a way for a lawyer to get a judge he didn't particularly like off all his cases."

Ridgway said his office didn't find out about the order until it already had been entered.

"We would have researched the (issue), seen what our options were and taken a position, but we didn't get asked," he said.

Merritt declined to comment.

In response to a public records request from the Times, 5th Circuit general counsel Grace Fagan confirmed that Merritt and Tatti corresponded with her and with each other about Morris' filing, but she declined to provide the emails and notes, citing an exemption in the state's Sunshine Law for documents that relate "to the court's judicial decision-making process."

• • •

Born and reared in Indiana, Morris earned his law degree from Valparaiso University. He worked as an assistant state attorney in Florida for about year and opened his Brooksville practice in 1994.

The married father of two school-age children dismissed the rumblings about ulterior motives.

"It is unfortunate that there are those in the legal community who perceive an imbalance in the administration of justice and would speculate that is the motivation for my campaign," he said.

He declined to comment on his own perception of Tatti's administration of justice, saying only that he has a "philosophical difference with his approach to judging."

"I believe and subscribe to the philosophy of a judiciary along the lines of (former Hernando circuit judges) Jack Springstead and Steve Rushing and Dan Merritt Sr.," he said. "I believe I can bring a balanced approach to the seat."

Tatti, 52, declined to comment at length on Morris' filing or Merritt's recusal order. The father of four, including two school-age children, said his request to transfer is strictly based on his desire to be closer to home.

Tatti served for a few years early in his career as an assistant public defender, then worked as an assistant state attorney for 23 years, specializing in death penalty cases, until Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to the bench in 2011 after Rushing retired. Tatti ran unopposed last year. Circuit judges serve six-year terms.

"If Mr. Morris is still a candidate in 2018, I will look forward to discussing our qualifications for the position I currently hold," Tatti said. "Until then, my plan is to come to work every day and do the job I was elected to do the best way I know how."

Lake County Circuit Judge Don Briggs, who serves as the chief judge for the 5th Circuit, said Friday that Tatti is the only one of the 31 other judges who has expressed interest in the post held by Marion Circuit Judge Sandra Evans-Stephens, who retires in October.

If another judge expresses interest by the Monday deadline, Briggs said he will make a decision soon after that. The circuit's Judicial Nominating Commission would then solicit applications for the vacant judge's post, which would be based in Brooksville if Tatti gets the Marion post and no other judge asks to transfer here.

Morris said he has no interest in applying, even if the open seat is in Brooksville.

"I've talked to my wife about that," he said, "and it doesn't match our timetable."

Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

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