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Judge's rulings turn election challenge into heated argument

A lengthy track record with some controversial rulings plagues Circuit Judge Richard "Ric" Howard as he campaigns against an insurgent challenger to keep his spot on the bench in Citrus County.

Prompted by criticism from opponent Rhonda Portwood, the race for the Group 11 seat in the 5th Judicial Circuit is turning into a referendum on Howard's tenure and the fairness of his sentences.

"You should not be in fear of your court," said Portwood, an Inverness attorney who handles mostly family law matters.

It's rare for a sitting judge to face opposition and even more unusual that one faces such harsh criticism.

Portwood said she never expected the race to turn so heated. At first, she said she had nothing bad to say about Howard. But her mind-set changed, she said, after Howard began minimizing her experience.

"It was a hard decision because I don't want my clients to be treated differently because I ran against a judge," she said. "But now I know I probably won't be able to practice in felony court in Citrus County if he stays on the bench. … I thought we are all grownups and professionals. But it seems to me, I don't know, I just believe he's real upset about it."

Howard is taking a defiant stance, seemingly insulted that he is facing opposition. He criticizes Portwood's inexperience — she joined the bar in 2002 — and attributes her statements to her "youthful exuberance."

"I'm disappointed that she thinks her 5 1/2 years stack up against my 30," he said.

Richard Howard

Howard, 55, of Royal Highlands in northwest Hernando County, was appointed to the bench in 2000 by Gov. Jeb Bush to finish the term of a disgraced judge who resigned. Howard won election in 2002 without opposition.

He is campaigning on his 30 years of experience as a prosecutor, defense attorney and judge. He touts his qualifications to try death penalty cases in all three realms. And he frequently references his highest-profile case, the death penalty trial of Jessica Lunsford's killer, John Couey, in Miami in 2007. Howard sentenced Couey to death almost exactly a year ago.

Most recently, Howard helped establish a mental health diversion court to identify people with mental instabilities for participation in a rehabilitation program.

In court, Howard is the center of attention. He often explains his decisions and isn't afraid to give his opinion about defendants or cases. He also doesn't mind getting emotional. He doesn't tolerate those who don't take responsibility for their actions or those who violate probation.

It's difficult to categorize his sentencing tendencies because he handles so many cases. "I'm controversial because I have the toughest docket," he said.

But a couple of high-profile cases have created an uproar in the Citrus County community in recent years.

The first is the case of Adam Bollenback, who at the age of 17 stole a six-pack of beer from a neighbor's garage and then escaped from law enforcement officers. Howard sentenced him as an adult to 10 years in prison based on his previous juvenile criminal record, although corrections officials recommended he serve two years of community control. Bollenback took medication for bipolar disorder, but Howard noted intelligence tests showed he was competent.

The second is the case of William Thornton, who was 17 when he skidded through a poorly marked stop sign, crashing into a car and killing the driver and passenger. Howard gave Thornton 30 years in prison even though corrections officials recommended juvenile detention. The case is still under appeal.

Howard won't comment directly about either sentence or the criticism that followed, but he suggests these two cases are not indicative of a larger pattern.

Rhonda Portwood

Portwood, however, doesn't mince words in identifying what she feels is a bias. She called both sentences excessive and said he is particularly tough on young men.

"Yes, he has experience in (criminal law), but does that mean he is reasonable?" Portwood said. "I think I can be more reasonable. I think I can balance the interest of the victims with the state's interest, with the community interest and with the defendant's need to be punished and (the need to) deter crime."

She also criticized Howard's unpredictably, based on how far he veered from sentencing recommendations for Bollenback and Thornton. Portwood said she met with Thornton's mother, who endorsed her campaign.

"People shouldn't be afraid of their government," she said. "They should be able to trust their government."

Portwood, 45, came to practice law late in life. She grew up in Perry and started a family early. She has two children and 13 stepchildren. She owned a hair salon in her hometown for 12 years before returning to school. She earned a bachelor's degree from Florida State University in 1999 at age 36 and then a law degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville three years later.

Her first job was working as an assistant state attorney for eight months, handling misdemeanor cases, before joining a private firm in August 2003. She specialized in family law and about 15 months later opened her own practice.

"I feel like I have enough knowledge in any of the areas because I practice in all of them," she said. "I don't have 30 years of law experience, but I think it gives me an edge because I'm a regular working joe."

Her biggest case came in 2004, when she was just two years out of law school. She took an adoption case representing a father who was trying to get parental rights. The case eventually went to the Florida Supreme Court, where Portwood successfully argued that an unmarried man who fathers a child out of wedlock must be given notice before his parental rights are terminated.

"Now fathers are getting noticed," she said. "It was a very, very good experience, and I'm happy with the outcome."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Judge's rulings turn election challenge into heated argument 08/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2008 3:25pm]
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