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Blackstone's fall, broken vows a loss for all of us

He crashed the gate as a maverick, promising to face down and shake up the entrenched courthouse crowd. He's leaving humbled, bitter and disillusioned.

Michael Blackstone vowed to fight the system _ and the system won.

It wasn't supposed to end like this.

Blackstone won his Circuit Court seat in 1996 by painting himself as a new breed of judge, one who would bring the judiciary to the people by being active in the community. He'd fast-track cases, doing away with the endless continuances granted by his predecessor, John Thurman.

He struck a chord with voters but didn't exactly bowl them over. More than 94,000 people in the five-county 5th Judicial Circuit cast ballots in the race, and a recount showed Blackstone beat Thurman by a mere 85 votes. Even before he was officially sworn in, Blackstone was fulfilling his campaign promises by diving into the backlog of cases Thurman left behind. He held trials, granted motions _ and started stepping on lawyers' toes.

Yep, things would be different, all right.

To a community weary after years of lunacy and laziness by its judges, Blackstone was a breath of fresh air. He was outspoken in the courtroom, he gave up his Saturdays to oversee community service cleanup crews, he broke from the cozy fraternity of local judges and lawyers.

He reveled in the notoriety and positive headlines his actions drew. But not everyone was jumping on his bandwagon.

Blackstone bucked the other judges in the county on their pet issues _ expanding the courthouse and rotation of duties. His activism in the courtroom, questioning witnesses and lawyers, strayed too close to the lines of judicial misconduct. He insulted the senior judge in public.

Blackstone is no fool _ he had to know there would be repercussions. He also knows there are lawyers in town who have the Judicial Qualifications Commission's phone number on speed dial. He knew the complaints would come.

And they have. In March, the JQC filed seven charges against him, saying he verbally abused lawyers, had an inappropriate relationship with a co-worker and conducted secret investigations. Much more damaging, however, was the eighth charge, filed after the investigation began. The JQC says he lied to it. That's perjury, folks, and that one could have cost him his job.

While the charges are not in the same league as those that brought down former County Court Judges Leonard Damron and Gary Graham, they are serious. Collectively, they show a disturbing pattern, one that the JQC is duty-bound to investigate.

Like Graham, Blackstone accused the JQC of being biased against him. But there is no indication that the JQC is gunning for him. He complains that it is scrutinizing his every word and action. He's right _ but that's its job.

The judge lamely gripes about courthouse politics and hints at unspecified conspirators. He's right again, but so what? Show me a courthouse anywhere that is not awash in politics and petty jealousies.

Whatever their motivation, the lawyers who complained to the JQC are obliged to raise concerns about situations in the courthouse that they feel compromise the administration of justice. They may not be right, but complaining to the JQC doesn't automatically make them evil, either.

We'll never know if these allegations are true. Before the battle was really joined, Blackstone retreated. His resignation takes effect Oct. 31.

It's his decision, of course. No one could force him to endure the months of humiliating accusations and frustrating legal wrangling. Blackstone is foremost a family man, and he had no intention of subjecting his family to this emotional trauma.

That's very understandable and noble. It's also not what he promised the 47,141 people who voted for him. Citrus County took a chance on him, and he let us down.

In the end, it's a loss for both the county and for the judge.

The greater loss, however, is Blackstone's. He'll forever bear the inglorious mantle of "former judge," and the cloud of unanswered questions about his conduct will never fully disappear.

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