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That quiet race for county judge has gotten noisy

Published Oct. 8, 2005

There's no bull, but this year's race for Citrus County judge has become fierce nonetheless.

Until recently, the two contestants for the non-partisan seat waged a decidedly low-key campaign. Judge Mark J. Yerman pledged to continue to restore order, dignity and respect to a court torn apart by the ouster of former Judge Gary Graham.

Challenger Stephen D. Hurm, a former prosecutor, campaigned to make criminals more accountable for their crimes.

But just when it seemed a race for Citrus County judge might be almost boring, something that hasn't happened in the county for a decade, politics came into play.

First, Hurm's former law partner, Barbara Gurrola, filed a lawsuit against him seeking an accounting of their firm's 1992 financial affairs.

Then Hurm began attacking some of Yerman's bench decisions, calling him an "office lawyer" sorely lacking judicial experience.

He cites a case in which Yerman sentenced a thrice-convicted drunken driver to 45 days in jail _ all served on the weekends. Yerman says a single case isn't a fair evaluation of a record he calls tough on crime.

Hurm says his campaigning hasn't taken a negative slant. Rather, he says, he wants voters to look at the record.

"It's important for people to realize what Mark's doing and what his philosophy is," Hurm said. The case "is evidence of a lack of experience related to criminal law."

Yerman disagrees.

"I'm disappointed that the campaign has been diverted from what it was, a campaign based on our abilities," he said after a recent candidates' forum in Beverly Hills. "We were really doing well."

Both men have impressive legal backgrounds.

Yerman, 43, has practiced law in Florida more than 13 years, the past decade in Citrus County. Most of his experience has been in civil law _ contracts, family matters and the like _ but he cites his year on the bench as proof of his readiness to be judge.

Since his appointment by Gov. Lawton Chiles last year, Yerman counts as achievements a reduction in the number of backlogged cases and a volunteer mediation program.

But his biggest accomplishment, he says, is restoring order to a court torn by complaints of judicial misconduct against two previous county judges.

Yerman was appointed to the bench in September to replace Graham, who was ousted by the Florida Supreme Court for numerous instances of judicial misconduct.

Graham fought efforts to remove him, saying that the people put him in office and that only they should decide whether he should stay there. He retained the seat in a 1990 election characterized by opponent Charles Horn's huge billboards urging voters to "Cut the Bull" by ousting Graham, a reference to Graham's decision to jail a lawyer for saying "bull" in his courtroom.

Graham won the seat in 1986 after former Judge Leonard Damron was removed by the Florida Supreme Court for misconduct, based largely on complaints brought against him by Graham.

Those days are gone, Yerman says. The court is back on track.

"It's efficient. It's honest. It's fair," he says.

Hurm, 38, first drew notice in the local legal community as a prosecutor. He is now in private practice; he also serves as conflict public defender in the 5th Judicial Circuit, handling cases when the public defender's office has a conflict of interest.

His experience prosecuting more than 50 jury trials taught him the necessity of putting the shame back in crime, he says.

Hurm favors creative punishments. Among them: publishing photos of drunken drivers in newspapers and forcing convicted offenders to write letters of apology to their victims.

"I believe the court system is broken and needs to be fixed," Hurm told a recent rally of senior citizens in Beverly Hills. "We need to bring shame back into the courtroom."

Hurm says the suit filed against him by Gurrola, who recently lost a bid for a bench spot on the 5th Judicial Circuit, is groundless.

Gurrola is seeking a full accounting, including cash receipts, credit cards and bank statements, for the year she spent as partner with Hurm in 1992.

But Hurm says his books are open to anyone who wants to audit them. He has not responded to the suit but says he plans to before Election Day.

"There's no basis to it at all," Hurm said.

The campaign turned shrill after the primary. Yerman came close to seizing an outright majority with 47 percent of the vote, but Hurm hung in and forced a runoff.

In October, Hurm went on the warpath. He repeatedly brought up the case of Teri Ann Franklin, whom Yerman sentenced in August to 45 days in jail served on weekends.

Hurm says the sentence is too soft and shows the difference in the two men's philosophy.

"Three times she's threatened the lives of people on the highway," Hurm said. "I don't think (the sentence) is appropriate."

But Yerman says the sentence should be seen in context. The woman had completed a treatment program and her boss testified that she was working hard to be a productive member of society.

"She's back at work," he said.