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Judicial race focuses on negatives // GROUP 9

Judicial races typically are quiet, boring affairs. Someone apparently forgot to tell John Welch and his opponent, Circuit Judge Jack Singbush.

Welch has accused Singbush of essentially arranging a $200 payoff for a political ally. Singbush likens Welch's campaign tactics to those of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

By any standard, this political race has been hard-fought. By judicial standards, it has been nothing short of a battle royal.

The race also has been costly. By Aug. 9, Singbush had paid out $34,000 on his campaign; Welch has spent half that amount, which is still a lot for a judicial race.

Aside from the strong accusations and big money, the issues are fairly straightforward.

Welch says the incumbent judge is short on impartiality, integrity and courtesy. "My candidacy against Jack Singbush is based upon the fact he is not doing his job," he said.

Singbush is happy to talk about his record, which includes more than 36,000 hearings and hundreds of trials. When he enters the courtroom, the judge says he tries to restore litigants' self-respect, add humor and dignity and diffuse fear.

"I can do more in a month as a judge than I can do in a year as a lawyer," Singbush said recently. "I'm your judge, and I work for you."

To understand the race, a bit of history is helpful.

In 1989, Singbush mounted a campaign against Circuit Judge Wallace Sturgis, a longtime jurist who had received a reprimand from the Florida Supreme Court. Among his wrongs: waving a gun in court while lawyers, including Singbush, were present.

Singbush won that race.

Welch practiced law with Sturgis in the 1970s, before Sturgis became a judge. He considered Sturgis, now deceased, like a "father."

"I was sorry to see his career end the way it did," Welch said.

Still, Welch denied that revenge was a motivating factor in his campaign. "My reason for running coincided with that seat coming available and my feeling that I was better qualified for that job," Welch said.

According to a report from the court administrator's office, Welch says Singbush's case backlog is better than 1,000 _ far above other judges.

He also says Singbush consistently begins his court sessions late. And once court starts, his lack of legal acumen results in dragged-out proceedings.

Some attorneys forcefully agree. One is Skip McDonald, who has many complaints about the judge.

"Judge Singbush will take 15 or 20 minutes to do it (a five-minute hearing) because he gives a speech to the people," McDonald said.

Singbush and his many supporters could not disagree more.

The alleged "backlog" is merely a running docket, he said. Cases are handled promptly, the judge said, and Welch simply does not understand how the cases are tracked.

Singbush says he is a diligent judge, willing to work early, late, through lunch _ whatever is necessary. If he has been late, he says, it's because he has been handling another matter.

He also notes that his caseload has been extremely heavy. During his first years on the bench, he regularly was sent to Hernando County to handle a docket.

Charles Holloman, an Ocala attorney who likes both candidates but is actively backing Singbush, said all judges, to one extent or another, run late. He said Singbush is meticulous and thorough.

"If you show me a judge who's always on time and I'll show you a county where there isn't much work," Holloman said. "There's nobody that has tried more criminal cases in front of Judge Singbush in his six-year tenure than me."

Don Scaglione, a prosecutor in Brooksville and Singbush supporter, had a similar opinion of the incumbent.

"He was always there and available. He made himself available if something occurred. His court hearings did run consistently longer . . . but from my observations, that was strictly caused by his thoroughness," said Scaglione, who said he was commenting as an individual and not on behalf of the state attorney's office.

Welch goes on to note that five Ocala attorneys have asked, for one reason or another, to have Singbush removed from their cases.

"This means, in effect, that five attorneys in Ocala have convinced the chief judge with facts that Judge Singbush cannot exercise impartiality toward them or their clients," Welch said.

Singbush denied any impropriety, saying that all judges have conflicts of one sort or another with attorneys. In this case, the attorneys are McDonald; another attorney, Brian Lee, who was the defendant in a lawsuit that Singbush prosecuted as the plaintiff's lawyer; the husband of his judicial assistant; and two others who once practiced with the husband.

Singbush would prefer to talk about his ideas for a second term. He wants to increase use of computers on the bench, so that judges can access records from the clerk and prosecutor's offices. He also wants to make better use of the two-way TV system that allows attorneys to communicate with clients at the jail without traveling there.

Instead, the campaign has focused on negatives.

Last week, Welch accused Singbush of once increasing from $400 to $600 the attorneys fees for a lawyer who had supported Singbush's fight in the last election. Singbush denied that politics played a role.

He also suggested that Welch's strategy bore resemblance to that of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister who believed in repeating accusations until people thought them as fact.

JACK SINGBUSH, 44, won election to the circuit bench in 1990. His judicial work has been concentrated mostly in Marion and Hernando counties. Singbush was born in Tampa but spent most of his life in Ocala. He is a faculty member of the Florida College of Advanced Judicial Studies, serves on the board of directors at Arnette House, is a Boy Scout leader and works with Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. He has received the Juvenile Justice Service Award and Guardian Ad Litem Recognition Award, among others. He is divorced and has one child.

ASSETS: cash, checking account, home, stock.

LIABILITIES: auto loan.

SOURCE OF INCOME: judicial salary.

JOHN F. WELCH, 55, has practiced law the past 28 years. A former prosecutor, Welch came to Ocala in 1970, started in private practice and has been there ever since. Welch is a member of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in Ocala, the Elks Club of Ocala and has won volunteer service awards from the Ocala Shrine Club and Hospice of Marion County. A widower, Welch has two sons in college.

ASSETS: home, law office and office furnishings, cash.

LIABILITIES: auto loans, property mortgages.

SOURCE OF INCOME: law practice.