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Court cases proceed while judge appeals

The legal door leading out of County Judge Gary Graham's courtroom opened a bit wider Monday. But the host of lawyers eager to rush out for good might have to wait a while longer.

Last week, a circuit judge ordered Graham to step down from four lawyers' cases because Graham had targeted them as part of a private "investigation."

That order probably also will apply to about 16 other lawyers who were on Graham's target list.

Now the same circuit judge has announced that he will not delay the lawyers' cases while Graham fights for the right to preside over them. The court administrator's office in Ocala had a copy of that order on hand Monday afternoon.

If the order is allowed to stand, then eligible lawyers are expected to file the necessary paperwork and take their case files to a different judge's courtroom.

But Graham still has a few remedies.

He has appealed Circuit Judge Raymond McNeal's order to the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach. It's not clear whether the court is obliged to consider the matter; as of Monday, it was considered an active case.

Graham also may ask that court to stay the lawyers' cases while its justices sort out the legal mess. As of 5 p.m. Monday, the court clerk's office had not received any such request.

The appellate news was just one of the developments to emerge Monday from the Citrus County Court:

Graham resumed accepting plea bargains, a practice he temporarily, and mysteriously, suspended last week.

The judge, speaking in open court, denied that he ever stopped taking plea bargains.

Public Defender Skip Babb wondered aloud whether Graham stopped taking pleas because of a letter an assistant public defender wrote to Babb.

Babb said he would consider accepting private lawyers' help to reduce his workload in county court.

In the appellate order, McNeal pointed out that Graham had waged a "highly personalized struggle" with the Citrus County Bar while defending himself against misconduct charges that the Judicial Qualifications Commission filed.

Specifically, Graham had reviewed driving records, criminal records, car registration information and other documents concerning 25 people who were either lawyers, judges or a lawyer's relative.

Graham later refused to step down from eight cases that involved clients of four of the lawyers: James Spindler, Patricia Vitter, Glen Abbott and Cliff Travis.

McNeal told Graham to step down. McNeal said he was confident Graham could be fair, but added that it was "unreasonable for a litigant to have that same confidence."

As for the plea bargains, Graham accepted a few Monday and rejected a few _ quite a departure from his record last Monday.

On that day, Graham refused to accept 16 plea offers for clients of the public defender's office. Babb traveled from his Tavares office to watch proceedings Monday, but court had resumed business as usual.

Later in the day, after Babb left, Graham said he had a different recollection of what happened last week.

"I did not reject 16 plea offers," the judge said. The cases must have been set for trial, he said, because the state had not made any plea offers at all.

Assistant State Attorney Liz Osmond contradicted the judge, saying that the state presented offers in all those cases and that the suggested sentences fit within Graham's general guidelines.

Babb said Graham may have rejected the pleas because he was upset about the content of a memo Miller wrote to Babb in which she discussed some issues in the court. The St. Petersburg Times was unable to obtain a copy of that memo Monday.

Finally, to help solve the problem created last Monday, Babb may accept an offer of free legal services from Charles Horn and Johnnye Friedrich.