Hillsborough judge married to transit tax opponent recuses herself from hearing legal challenge to tax

Circuit Court Judge Laurel Lee is stepping away from the suit filed this month by Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, saying state law is clear.
Circuit Court Judge Laurel Moore Lee and her husband State Senator Tom Lee, R- Brandon, on the first day of the 2016 Florida legislative session. Laurel Lee disqualfied herself Monday as the judge handling County Commissioner Stacy White's lawsuit against the county's new transit tax. (SCOTT KEELER | TIMES)
Circuit Court Judge Laurel Moore Lee and her husband State Senator Tom Lee, R- Brandon, on the first day of the 2016 Florida legislative session. Laurel Lee disqualfied herself Monday as the judge handling County Commissioner Stacy White's lawsuit against the county's new transit tax. (SCOTT KEELER | TIMES)
Published December 18 2018
Updated December 18 2018

TAMPA — A Hillsborough judge married to State Sen. Tom Lee, a prominent critic of the county's new transit tax, has removed herself from overseeing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the levy.

Circuit Court Judge Laurel Lee issued an order late Monday recusing herself from the suit filed by Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, saying state law requires her to accept the request from the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit attorney that said her marriage to Tom Lee raised fears of an unfair hearing.

"The trial judge is not permitted to deny the allegations supporting the motion as untrue, reject them as unfounded, determine their credibility, or comment upon them at all. Therefore, as required by law, the court assumes the factual allegations described in defendant’s motion are true solely for thepurpose of determining their legal sufficiency and consequently finds the Motion to be legally sufficient," wrote Laurel Lee in her order.

The case has been reassigned to Judge Rex Barbas, according to a letter sent Tuesday by Circuit Court Clerk Pat Frank to Alan Zimmet, who is representing the county.

White said he had no reaction to Lee's recusal.

"I'm leaving the legal process up to the attorneys and the judicial system," White texted.

Tom Lee was a vocal critic of the one-penny on the dollar sales tax approved by voters in November. The tax is expected to raise about $302 million per year. HART's share would be about $136 million.

On Monday, Chief Hillsborough Judge Ronald Ficarrotta said it would be up to Laurel Lee to make the decision to recuse herself.

White's legal challenge, filed on Dec. 4, asserts that a citizens committee set up to oversee how the tax revenue is spent unconstitutionally leapfrogs the power of elected officials.

David Smith, an attorney representing HART, greeted Tuesday's news by saying Lee's decision was no reflection on her quality as a jurist.

"But when you have a situation where there is a potential conflict, it's best not to move forward so the community at large is comfortable with the outcome. Although I'm sure Judge Lee would not have done anything improper," Smith said.

The next action in the lawsuit should come in the next few weeks, Smith said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459 . Follow@CharlieFrago . Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813)226-3374. Follow@TMarreroTimes.

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