Circuit Judge Carven Angel heard arguments Thursday about whether he should remove himself from the voting fraud case of Brooksville lawyer Joe Mason.
Angel is not expected to decide the matter until next week at the earliest.
Meanwhile, Mason's case has been removed from the Oct. 26 trial docket, which means the charges and the question of Mason's legal residency probably will remain unresolved until after the general election Nov. 3.
Mason has been accused of voting illegally in the 1990 and 1991 Brooksville city elections, listing his mother's address as his own when he actually lived outside city limits.
Assistant State Attorney Reginald Black told Angel on Thursday that remarks the judge made during an Aug. 27 hearing made it appear that he thought third-degree felony charges should never have been brought against Mason.
"In today's climate, when the population is so uncertain of the integrity of our judicial system . . . it is absolutely necessary that we as public servants give every attention to the most minute detail," Black said.
He said a bad image of lawyers and judges, for reasons real and imagined, has grown over the years: "They have an indictment against us that cannot be washed away by rhetoric or words."
A transcript of that hearing includes 15 pages of opening comments made by Angel. During the August hearing, the judge questioned why prosecutors sought criminal charges rather than pursuing the case in civil court. He argued that fewer people would vote if prosecutors kept going after people for voting in a place where they do not officially reside.
"I mean, your residency is . . . your home is where your heart is," Angel said in the hearing, the transcript shows. "If a person lives in a place, grows up there, and his home is there _ well, my goodness, some people go off to college and _ I did _ I did the same thing that everybody else did."
The judge's comments that day demoralized prosecutors and suggested that Angel was prejudiced against them, Black said.
Mason's attorney, Bill DeCarlis, countered that Angel asked only rhetorical questions, which is not grounds for disqualification from the case.
"It's not only your right, it's your duty as a judge to make the sort of comments you made," DeCarlis said. "That's proper. There is not one remark wherein you say you have a fixed opinion of guilt or innocence of this man (Mason)."
DeCarlis also argued that prosecutors had an ulterior motive when they asked this week for Angel to step down from this case.
Unhappy because Angel had granted Mason's motion to move the trial to Ocala from Brooksville, DeCarlis suggested, Black and fellow prosecutor Jim McCune wanted another judge who might reconsider the venue-change request and rule in their favor.
In response, Angel said, "That still leaves the nagging question: What would they have done if the ruling had been in their favor?"
Although he did not rule on the motion, Angel indicated that he felt he behaved properly in the hearing. He said all he tried to do was address issues that concerned him in the case.
"The remarks that I made were in an effort to bring some balance to this case," Angel told Black. "I was trying to bring some proper perspective to this case. . . . How far can I go _ or any judge go _ in having any comments with the state attorney's office without being faced with a motion to recuse myself?"
Angel said McCune could just as easily be accused of prejudice against Mason, based on remarks the prosecutor made during previous hearings _ comments the judge described as "offensive," because McCune suggested that Mason was pulling strings and getting preferential treatment.
"I've got no stake, no interest in this case. I've never met Joe Mason in my life. I never heard his name until he came up here," Angel said. Mason's case was moved to Ocala after all four circuit judges in Hernando County removed themselves because Mason had served on their nominating committee.
"(Mason) should not expect any privilege simply because he's a lawyer," Angel said, "but neither should he be castigated or treated harshly because he is a lawyer."
Angel said he would not allow Mason to abuse the judicial system.
After Mason originally was charged with voting in the 1991 election, a trial was avoided with the stipulation that Mason be forbidden to vote in the 1992 city election. For now, that mandate remains in effect.
But DeCarlis has filed a motion to throw out the pretrial intervention agreement from that case, reactivate the original charges and merge them with the more recent charges stemming from the 1990 election.
If the agreement is thrown out, the door would be open for Mason to vote again, which might mean further charges. Angel will not consider the defense motion until he has reached a decision about his role in the case.
However, DeCarlis said, the public should not expect Mason at the polls until the case is finally closed.
"I don't want to cause more controversy than there is already," DeCarlis said. "I think he'd like to vote. Our position is that he didn't do anything wrong. But I don't think there's any reason to fan the flames. We've got two cases already pending. We don't need another one."