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Judge, activist receive victories, vindication

For a couple of well-known Hernando County residents, the air has been thick with more than humidity this month. Peyton Hyslop and Joan Lentini are deep-breathing the sweet smell of victory.

+ Hyslop's vindication came last week in the form of a ruling from the 5th District Court of Appeal. The judges in that higher court were asked to decide if the chief judge of the 5th Judicial Circuit, William Swigert, could forbid first-appearance judges from modifying the bail specified by judges who sign the arrest warrants. Swigert issued the order as an attempt to end a long-running dispute between the circuit judges in Hernando County and Hyslop, the county judge who handles almost all first appearances of defendants.

Circuit judges Jack Springstead and William Law had criticized Hyslop for lowering the bails they set when they signed arrest warrants. Those judges were being cheered by State Attorney Brad King and his staff and by law enforcement officers.

But Hyslop maintained that he is in a better position to evaluate a defendant. More important, he also correctly recognized that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the imposition of excessive bail. Hyslop reasoned that the bail amounts set by warrant-signing judges was arbitrary and determined without the best available information regarding the alleged crime.

The District Court of Appeal, in striking down Swigert's order, agreed. The panel wrote that "binding the first-appearance judge . . . deprives the defendant of a meaningful bail determination hearing."

It took some nerve for Hyslop to stick to his guns on this issue. Not only did he have to endure the disapproval of judges he works with, but his detractors also tried to turn his principled stance into a political issue.

When Hyslop ran for re-election in 1998, his opponents, including county judge candidate Don Scaglione, characterized him as soft on crime and suggested that the defendants whose bail was lowered by Hyslop soon were committing other crimes. An in-depth analysis by St. Petersburg Times staff writer Graham Brink proved that was simply not true. Of course, Hyslop went on to win.

The Court of Appeal's ruling unequivocally proves that Hyslop's interpretation of the law and his responsibilities were on the money. It probably won't bring an end to the hostilities between Hyslop and the law-and-order types in the courthouse, but it takes away some of the ammunition they were using in this turf war.

+ Joan Lentini is the mother of nine children, so you know she can handle physical pain. But it is her ability to endure emotional agony that has been put to the test lately.

Last week, she and her sparring partner for the past few months, Cathie Sullivan, met in a title bout at the Hernando Beach Property Owners Association. Lentini may not have scored a knockout, but she certainly took her opponent down a notch or two.

After a months-long power struggle, Sullivan, president of the association, and her minions tried to remove the longtime volunteer from the HBPOA's board. Such a move was unprecedented and requires the approval of two-thirds of the membership.

But Sullivan must have underestimated Lentini's deep community roots. When the votes were counted, not only did Sullivan not have the required two-thirds needed to remove Lentini from the board, but she also didn't even have a simple majority. Sixty-nine members supported Lentini to 61 against.

Lentini and Sullivan have vehemently disagreed on several issues, most prominently the question of whether commercial fishing boats should be allowed to dock behind residential properties. Threats and accusations have been thrown by both sides, and it has done more to divide the community than any issue in recent memory.

Nonetheless, Thursday night's HBPOA vote can be characterized as nothing less than a victory for Lentini, and should send an underlying message to Sullivan and her supporters that most of the people in the organization are capable of disagreeing without being disagreeable.