County Judge Gary Graham can check lawyers' driving records, but he can't then preside over those lawyers' cases, an appellate judge said Tuesday.
Specifically, that means Graham must step down from eight misdemeanor, traffic and small-claims cases that were pending on his docket.
Lawyers had asked Graham to remove himself because he had looked at the attorneys' driving records as part of a private "investigation." The judge refused to step down, and the lawyers appealed.
In granting the appeals, Circuit Judge Raymond T. McNeal noted that Graham has portrayed his defense against recent misconduct charges as a "highly personalized struggle between him and the Citrus County Bar, local public officials and his fellow judges."
"The personal nature of the conflict has created an intolerable adversary relationship between the judge and some members of the Citrus County Bar," he wrote.
Because of that, Graham "should have disqualified himself from these cases."
Beyond its immediate effect, the ruling further divides Citrus County's court system, which has been immersed in controversy for months. Consider:
The lawyers who asked to have Graham removed from their cases _ James Spindler, Cliff Travis, Patricia Vitter and Glen Abbott _ may be out of Graham's court for good. The legal reasoning handed down Tuesday no doubt will apply to all future work they do in county court.
The same probably goes for the 17 other lawyers whose driving records Graham has examined. The legal reasoning announced Tuesday appears to apply to them as well.
The public defender's office may be able to make a case that its clients are being treated unfairly because they can't hire a private lawyer and have their cases heard before a judge other than Graham.
"Now we have two different county courts in Citrus County," Public Defender Skip Babb said Tuesday.
Three other lawyers _ Charles Horn, Johnnye Friedrich and Barbara Gurrola _ already must have their county cases heard before Circuit Judge John Thurman, who ordinarily handles a felony docket. Monday, Thurman presided over as many county cases as Graham did or more, court records showed.
If the case load becomes unmanageable, other judges from the 5th Judicial Circuit are prepared to help out. Court officials have been considering such a plan for weeks.
"We didn't have our heads in the sand," said Circuit Judge William Swigert, the chief jurist for Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Sumter and Lake counties.
Graham, in a rare comment to a newspaper reporter, said he will appeal Tuesday's decision. The 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach would consider any such plea.
The cause of all the legal wrangling traces back to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which has charged Graham with six counts of official misconduct.
One charge chastises Graham for talking about favoritism in the criminal-justice system without citing specific examples. To defend himself, Graham publicly said he will seek out and expose all cases where doctors, lawyers and other influential people have received preferential treatment.
In August, the St. Petersburg Times published stories saying that Graham had requested driving records, car registration information and other court documents relating to at least 20 local lawyers and their relatives.
The judge did not pay the customary fees for the records. He also enlisted the help of the deputy clerks who work in his courtroom to conduct the research.
Many lawyers on the list complained publicly. Some asked Graham to step down from their cases, arguing that they and their clients feared Graham could not be fair to them because of this unexplained "investigation" he was mounting.
Graham refused to step down, saying the requests were "legally insufficient."
In considering the appeals, Judge McNeal conceded that newspaper reports about Graham's conduct usually would not be enough to force a disqualification.
But Graham publicly has said that he believes some Citrus lawyers want him removed. He also has promised to prove how bad some lawyers' practices and manners are, McNeal noted.
"This court is confident that Judge Graham would not let feelings about the attorney affect the outcome of a litigant's case," McNeal wrote, "but it is unreasonable to expect a litigant to have that same confidence."