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Judge should back off handgun case

Is it any wonder that Crystal River residents Ronald and Cary James are scared to go to court Monday? First of all, they're facing charges on a new, untested law that makes it a misdemeanor to leave a gun where a minor can get a hold of it. Their 12-year-old son took a handgun to school with him in January.

Second, they'll be before Citrus County Judge Gary Graham, who is known for giving out stiff, sometimes unorthodox sentences.

But most of all, they're afraid they won't get a fair shake because their attorney is Charles Horn. Horn not only has announced his intention to unseat Graham in November, he also has openly criticized, chastised and verbally sparred with Graham for more than 18 months.

It should come as no surprise that Horn wants Graham to transfer his clients' case to another judge. In view of the obvious discord between the two, it is surprising that Graham has refused to do so.

After all, it was Horn who pushed the Citrus County Bar Association to rebuke Graham in September 1988 after Graham said lawyers in his courtroom sometimes acted like misbehaving children. Graham eventually apologized for that one, but the bitterness between him and Horn continued unabated.

Rancor between the two grew so heated in early 1989, in fact, that Graham petitioned his boss to take him off all of Horn's cases. It took a particularly unsavory turn in May, when Graham refused to sign a restraining order to protect a Horn client from her abusive husband on the grounds that he wasn't about to go out of his way to "do a favor" for Horn.

Graham personalized the feud when he said of Horn, "He has on many occasions shared his belief that he doesn't think I'm a good judge, that he doesn't like me. I feel no obligation to go out of my way for him."

A few days later, Horn's client was severely beaten by her estranged husband.

The Graham-Horn battling finally dissolved into the ridiculous in December, when Horn put up two large red and white billboards emblazoned with a snorting bull and the slogan, "Cut the bull," a pointed reference to Graham's penchant for sentencing people to jail for uttering "bull" or "bull----" in his courtroom. Horn also passed out "Cut the bull" board-and-dice games and bumper stickers with the same theme.

This week, Horn staged a dramatic, but somewhat pointless news conference to criticize Graham's decision to transfer misdemeanor probation cases from a county program to the Salvation Army - hardly an unusual decision, since dozens of other counties did so years ago.

Graham says no law forces him to transfer the Jameses' case to another judge.

But in view of all that has gone on between Graham and the Jameses' attorney, this is one time when the unconventional judge would do all

concerned a favor by stepping aside.

Graham not only should withdraw from this particular Horn case, he also should petition to have himself excused from any case involving Horn until after the November election.

The issue goes beyond the petty petulance of Gary Graham. It even goes beyond the tasteless and degrading campaign tactics of Charles Horn.

What is at stake here are the rights of Mr. and Mrs. Ronald James to a fair trial in an open-minded, neutral court of law.

Based on past behavior, it's highly unlikely Graham and Horn can provide an atmosphere where the Jameses can be assured that personal feuding won't take priority over impartial justice.