For the first time in 13 years on the bench, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Michael Andrews faces an opponent. Why does the only black circuit judge have a white opponent who was recruited to run against him?
This campaign is not about tangibles — Andrews' efficiency and competence. In January 2009, he agreed to move from Pinellas to Pasco at the chief judge's request to unclog the backlogged docket. Mission accomplished: Records show that by the end of the year, he had reduced the case-load in his area from 668 to 540.
What this campaign is about is the judge's "demeanor" and "temperament." Public Defender Bob Dillinger and some private trial lawyers have complained that Andrews is harsh, rude, arrogant and disrespectful. Clearwater lawyer Deborah Moss says she was recruited to run against him by lawyers disgruntled with Andrews' demeanor. Andrews acknowledges lawyers and supporters have talked to him about his courtroom demeanor, and that he has worked on it.
I am always suspicious of such complaints, particularly during an election cycle. I am especially suspicious when the person under attack is a highly principled member of a profession such as law, in which ego and winning are the measure of the person. I am especially suspicious when the person being criticized is an intelligent, blunt-talking black man in a mostly white environment. I have seen it and experienced it countless times. That intelligence and directness are often construed as arrogance, even hubris, and invites retribution.
Andrews, 46, and I have known each other since he was appointed to the county bench in 1997. I have observed him in the courtroom, and I have served with him on panels at community forums, most recently in May at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg. Each time I have been around him — inside and outside the courtroom — he has offered unadorned insights that cut through the nonsense and the disingenuousness.
In the rarified world of the court, where one-upmanship is the name of the game, I believe Andrews is being falsely portrayed. I believe he is being punished by those who do not perform to his high standards and object to his manner of telling them so.
Having listened to and read about complaints about Andrews, I spoke with several attorneys who think he is an excellent judge.
"I think at times some lawyers who appear before Judge Andrews are unprepared and/or used to getting their way," said Stephanie Pawuk, a St. Petersburg defense lawyer who writes the Pinellas County Florida Criminal Lawyer Blog. "He's trying to move his docket, and he gets upset when there have been too many continuances or lawyers haven't done what they said they would do. When Judge Andrews asks a question, he expects an answer, not a waffling response. He puts people on the spot. He admonishes both sides equally.
"Judge Andrews has the ability to see through the legal banter and can tell when someone isn't being completely candid. But he's no more rude or arrogant with his criticism than some of the other judges on the bench. When I was a new assistant state attorney in 2003, I was assigned to Judge Andrews' courtroom. He gave me a very hard time, but looking back on it, I think it made me a better lawyer. After giving me a hard time, he often told me what I'd done wrong and how to fix it. What that shows is someone who cares about the integrity of the legal profession."
I spoke with Andrews about the negative criticism from attorneys, especially from the public defender's camp. His response was simple and blunt:
"Look, I know how to make lawyers happy: Don't deny their continuances and do whatever they ask, you'll always be well-received. But that's not my function. It doesn't serve the defendants well. It causes delays. It doesn't serve the victims well. It means they will have to come back over and over again. Both defendants and victims sometimes stand up in my courtroom and scream: 'I don't want this continued again.'
"There have been cases that have been resolved in front of me where the defendant sat in jail for a year and a half, and it was resolved with the time-served disposition, ultimately with just probation. And that unfortunate person who couldn't bond out of jail had to sit for a year and a half. That's not fair to him. We need to move those cases so that we can resolve them as soon as we possibly can. In this way, everyone, including that defendant, is fairly served."
Racism has reared its ugly head on posters and on websites. Opponents have called for Andrews' lynching, and the n-word is being used with impunity. Screeds questioning Andrews' competence are increasing by the day, and the judge has received threats to himself and his family.
"It caused several days of police surveillance and significant distress to my wife and children," he said. "These people assume that if the 'n-word' is used, it will cause me to have a visceral reaction. Maybe they think I will lose my temper or that they will hurt my feelings. Maybe they think I will feel so dejected that I will suffer illness or depression. I wish I could say it was the first time in my career as a lawyer and judge that someone had chosen to use those ugly words toward me anonymously. I am not fazed by nasty words from bitter and disgruntled people. I have faith that such people don't speak for the majority of the people in the 6th Circuit."
Andrews said that fairness is all he asks of voters. He wants them to study his record both inside and outside the courtroom. There, he said, they will find the truth.