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A curious case of hands over Tampa Bay

If this is a marriage made in heaven, God definitely has a sense of humor. For he has paired the forces of darkness with the forces of light to answer a question buzzing around that palace of dishonor, the Hillsborough County Courthouse.

Should a bailiff who had an affair with a judge be forced to turn over the notes she kept about their secret relationship to a special prosecutor?

There's a lot riding on the question.

If the answer is yes, the notes, in all their embarrassing detail, might be made public someday, when the investigation is over and the case closed.

The metaphorical marriage is between the chief judge of the 13th Circuit, F. Dennis Alvarez _ the forces of darkness _ and the chief judge of the 6th, Pinellas' Susan Schaeffer _ the forces of light.

Alvarez has asked Schaeffer to rule on the question of the notes that bailiff Tara Pisano kept on her relationship with another Hillsborough circuit judge, Gasper Ficarrotta.

No judge in Hillsborough is willing to hear it. They all have a conflict. Every judge in Tampa knows Pisano or Ficarrotta or the other judges in this episode, Bob Bonanno and Greg Holder.

The soap opera began last month when Bonanno, one of Alvarez's closest friends, was caught in the dark snooping in Holder's office. Holder was out of town. Holder is no friend to either man. In fact, he'd told the governor more or less that Alvarez was under investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission for allegedly hiding the sexual antics of still another judge, now mercifully gone, Ed Ward.

Then it came to light that the judicial commission was also nosing around about Ficarrotta's affair, by then over, with Pisano.

Pisano didn't want hush money. She just wanted to keep her job, and she was afraid. So she went to a lawyer, who got her to write down the chronicle of her affair. That's what her lawyer doesn't want to turn over to the special prosecutor, Polk County State Attorney Jerry Hill, appointed not to look at Alvarez, not at Ward, but Bonanno, that bungler in the dark. What did he want in Greg Holder's office?

When I first heard that Alvarez wanted Schaeffer to step in, I thought it mighty strange.

It smacked of judge shopping _ a person with a problem trying to get a judge on his case whom he thinks would be favorable to him.

But I checked with the office of the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Charles T. Wells. It turns out that the story I thought was there was not, that this is a mostly mundane turn of events in what is otherwise part bodice-ripper novel, part soap opera.

It is routine for the chief judge of one circuit to ask the chief judge of another circuit to lend him a judge to hear a case nobody in the first circuit can take. Like this one. The chief judge who needs help can even pick the judge he wants. All that is required is for everybody involved to give their approval, and for Florida's chief justice to do the same.

That looks pretty much assured in this case, since the special prosecutor, Jerry Hill, and the lawyer for Tara Pisano, are very happy with the choice of Schaeffer.

But I still couldn't get it out of my mind, this tie between Schaeffer, so widely admired for her evenhandedness that people all but bow and scrape before her, and Alvarez, a guy who under those robes is a ward heeler through and through.

Schaeffer said it's common for her to ask him for help on cases where there is a conflict, and vice versa, if only because they're "just across the bridge" from each other. She said she volunteered herself for this one, and he accepted.

Habit may not be the only reason for his pick. My own theory is Alvarez is tired of being beat up on by the newspaper from the other side of the bridge _ the Times _ and he knows that in its editorials the paper often praises Schaeffer. So maybe Alvarez figures that if Schaeffer rules against the release of Tara Pisano's steamy notes, the Times won't be able to criticize her decision and will lay off him for a while. But I speculate. The ward heeler does not talk to me. Can't imagine why.

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