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Circuit judges changing duties

Published Sep. 28, 2005

The three circuit judges who have presided over the Circuit Court's civil, criminal and family court dockets in Citrus County the past two years will swap benches this month. The moves are part of a long-planned biennial rotation intended to expose them to as broad a spectrum of judicial work as possible.

The county's administrative judge, Patricia Thomas, will move from the civil docket to the criminal docket, assuming the caseload of Michael Blackstone, who will move to family court. Barbara Gurrola will move from family court to take over Thomas' civil docket.

By the time each judge's six-year term expires, said Gurrola, "We'll have seen everything that a circuit judge sees."

While the judges said they were enthusiastic about meeting the challenges of their new assignments, they also expressed pride in their past work. They said they will miss many of the relationships they have established during the past two years and said they are determined to stay involved in the programs they initiated.

Blackstone, whose past assignment also included juvenile court, often visited high schools and even established a weekend community service project for youth and adults. He said the child custody, dependency and divorce cases he handles in family court will still allow him to work with kids, indirectly.

"The issue of what's in the best interest of the child will still be in the forefront," he said. "The difference is that I will have to try to get parents to do what's in the best interest of the child as opposed to me doing what's in their best interest."

Because the rotation is determined by the calendar, the judges will be inheriting many ongoing cases. They likely will spend considerable time reading case files about disputes with which they're not familiar.

Gurrola said that should not slow down the judicial process. "Judges can be brought up to speed on a case very quickly," she said. "You read through the file and you bring yourself up to date."

She said that personal experience and observation of the parties can help when presiding over heavy caseloads but that judges often see so many cases they cannot rely on the accuracy of their memory, particularly if a case has lingered for a while. Case files, on the other hand, offer a paper trail.

"Frankly, there are a lot of judges that don't ever want to do family law, because it's tough," she said. "And they don't ever want to rotate. It's tough even on the judicial assistants."

Blackstone said he is ready. "I don't envision any problems," he said. "I came straight off the felony bench where people were required to do what I said and I'll bring that attitude to the family law bench. I think I've established myself as a no-nonsense judge." He will preside over two final criminal cases, manslaughter and murder trials, early this year while getting under way in family court.

Thomas, who two years ago was the newest judge in Circuit Court, now has more than five years' experience. She was appointed to a vacant seat in 1993, then won election the following year.

"We are in a river and the river never ends," she said of the ever-increasing caseloads. "My ball game is: When they (new cases) come up, I get them resolved."

According to Blackstone, that kind of efficiency is essential in handling the criminal docket, where cases include grand theft, driving under the influence of alcohol and first-degree murder. "It was harder to resolve cases than I expected," he said, referring to when he became a judge in January 1997.

He recalled the heavy backlog he assumed from his predecessor, former Circuit Judge John Thurman. "I think we left it in a lot better shape," he said.

According to Blackstone, the average time a defendant spent in jail before a case was resolved was 4{ months when Thurman was presiding,. "We've got it down to about 40 days," he said, "just working it all the time, forcing resolutions."

Thomas has experience on the criminal bench, including presiding over the September 1997 retrial of Scott Burnside, who, after a successful appeal of an earlier conviction, was convicted again for his role in the 1990 Floral City quadruple murder case.

"I think I'm qualified," she said. Thomas and Gurrola both helped establish the county's new Family Visitation Center, which provides supervised visitation and meeting points for parents who either share custody of their children or are only allowed weekly supervised visits.

Gurrola, a former prosecutor, public defender and schoolteacher, said she looks forward to the variety of the civil docket, which includes professional malpractice, guardian and probate cases. But, she said, "I will miss the people" from family court. "Hopefully I'll be back again."

But that wouldn't happen for at least four years, after she has presided over the civil docket and then taken a turn on the criminal docket.

Voters will decide whether the judges will take take another turn. Thomas faces re-election in 2000. Blackstone and Gurrola, who won their seats 1996, will have to campaign again in 2002.

In the meantime, Thomas said, the rotation provides judges the chance to learn and those they judge benefit from fresh judicial perspective.

"I think that we have an ideal situation," she said. By the time a judge has completed the cycle, "You have covered the waterfront."