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Court reprimands judge after his suicidal episode

Polk Circuit Judge William A. Norris Jr. got what he expected Thursday: a Florida Supreme Court reprimand for a drinking spree that began with a mysterious photograph and ended with Norris trying to kill himself. Norris got something else: a measure of vindication.

In announcing its reprimand, the Supreme Court spent more time supporting than condemning the prominent Polk County judge. Its decision suggested that a group of judicial investigators had gone too far in questioning Norris about an alleged homosexual episode.

"We are a court of law, not a court of rumor and innuendo," the justices said, calling Norris "a judge who has been an outstanding public servant for some 20 years, generously giving his time and energy for the betterment of this state and its judiciary."

Norris had never denied improper behavior, and his lawyer said a reprimand was the appropriate punishment. Attorney Thomas C. MacDonald Jr. added that he was pleased to see the Supreme Court did not agree with the tack taken by those who investigated Norris, the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC).

"I think that was a strong message to the members of the JQC who kept asking those inadmissible and unconstitutional questions," MacDonald said.

The questions centered around a mysterious photograph that set off Norris' spree of self-destruction in March 1990. The photograph, which Norris says he has never seen, reportedly depicted him engaged in a homosexual act.

Someone anonymously sent the photo to Norris' two adult children, deeply upsetting them. Rejected by his own children, Norris worried that the photograph could destroy his career as well.

He drank himself into a suicidal stupor, listening to Pink Floyd on the stereo and writing a note telling of his despair and his love for Supreme Court Justice Rosemary Barkett. He tried to kill himself by running a hose from his exhaust pipe into the car, but he was rescued. He subsequently acknowledged his alcoholism and enrolled in treatment programs.

The JQC convened to decide whether Norris should be allowed to remain on the bench. Prominent judges, lawyers and others lined up to support Norris, saying that the 1990 crisis was an aberration and that Norris had returned to continue excellent work on the bench.

But at times during the February hearing, JQC members hammered at an issue that was not part of the formal complaint: the photograph, which disappeared after Norris' children received it, of Norris engaged in a homosexual act.

"Are you a practicing homosexual?" JQC chairman J. Klein Wiggington asked at one point.

"No, sir," Norris replied.

On Thursday, Wiggington made no apologies for asking the question. Noting that the JQC gathers information for the Supreme Court, he said he wanted to provide the justices with all important facts.

"We're not determining guilt or innocence," Wiggington said. "We're finding facts."

Wiggington's panel did issue a recommendation to the high court that Norris be summoned into the Supreme Court for his public reprimand.

The justices declined. "Any publicity we might give to Judge Norris' case by calling him into court pales before the intense scrutiny already given him by the statewide press."

Norris has not explained his references to Barkett in his suicide note, other than to say that the two were friends. Barkett disqualified herself from the case.

Norris didn't comment on Thursday's ruling. But in a prepared statement, he thanked the colleagues and friends who supported him.

"They stood by me during the darkest hours," he said. "With this final resolution . . . I pledge to make every effort, with God's help, to justify the confidence of the Bench, the Bar, and the public."