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Judge faces a jury of his peers

A judge will go on trial today in his own courtroom as a panel determines if remarks he made blasting the criminal justice system _ including one in which he said a rapist should be castrated and hanged _ violated judicial ethics.

Judge Ed Miller faces four charges he violated judicial codes of conduct for the letter and for two others blasting the criminal justice system as "crack-brained" and ineffective. He also is charged with mishandling a child-custody hearing.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission will recommend to the state Supreme Court that the charges are false or find them true and recommend punishment ranging from a reprimand to removal from the bench. Miller could become the sixth Florida jurist booted since the commission was formed in 1966.

The Okeechobee County judge's troubles began with the first of three letters he wrote last year to the local newspaper. He wanted everyone to know, he wrote, why he had to levy a 12-year sentence against a man who raped his daughter and forced the girl to watch him assault her mother.

Miller first had exceeded mandatory guidelines to sentence the man to 45 years but was overturned on appeal. In the letter, Miller said he would rather have had the rapist castrated and hanged than have to give out such an inadequate sentence.

The 12-year sentence was the maximum allowed under the law.

"I obeyed the law as I am bound to do, but I left the Constitution and the Bill of Rights lying in tatters on the floor of my courtroom," Miller wrote. "I am not ashamed to say that I wept when I sentenced this man."

Miller's writings were contrary to the judicial code of conduct, according to the commission's charges.

"Your published comments undermine the integrity, dignity and public confidence in the judiciary and thereby demonstrate conduct unbecoming," the complaint reads.

It also accuses Miller of not giving the mother in a custody battle a chance to have an attorney present, then giving the child to a "friend and political backer" who is the mother of the woman's ex-husband. The child's mother eventually was awarded custody.

Miller's official response denies all the charges, including any suggestion that he acted improperly in the child custody case.

Miller responded that his constitutional rights are at stake, including guarantees of free speech, equal protection and due process.

The lawyer who represented the rapist Miller wrote about, as well as the mother in the custody case, filed the complaint with the commission.

Miller unseated an incumbent in 1988 and ran unopposed in 1992 in countywide elections. He is known for being tough in his courtroom and having strong ties in the community, where his activities have landed him in trouble before.

In 1990, he donned a grass skirt, bikini top and wig to collect money at a civic fund-raiser, which the commission called "improper and distasteful." Judges aren't supposed to solicit for charities.

Supporters of the judge planned a rally and prayer vigil on the courthouse lawn this morning.

"The community feels that he did his job," said hairdresser Kimberly Speed, 23. "If it was my child, I would have been behind him 100 percent.

"He's been here a long time, and people have gotten to know him on a personal basis. It's a small town, and people are going to stay by a judge they know."

The former longtime prosecutor said he has nothing to fear.

"I'm sure I'll get a fair trial and a fair hearing on the facts, and that's all anybody can ask for," Miller said.