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Dirty bench politics

The Judicial Qualifications Commission has had enough of sleazy politics in races for the circuit court bench. How else to interpret the accusations, some serious and some picayune, leveled at Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge John Renke III?

There is little doubt Renke III, the son of former state representative and current Pasco GOP state committeeman John Renke II, attempted to mislead the public in the 2002 campaign. Even appearing on the ballot as John Renke had some people believing they were voting for his father. The campaign also said the younger Renke, seven years out of law school, had broader experience than his opponent. That's a stretch. Declan Mansfield was a 12-year prosecutor who became a private defense attorney in 1991 while Renke III was still an undergraduate.

Renke's undocumented claim of political support from Clearwater firefighters was brazen opportunism in the post-Sept. 11 era of renewed respect for public safety employees.

The JQC is right to try to curtail such campaign tactics in judicial races. Yet, the commission ignored the most egregious example of malfeasance in the campaign _ the Pasco Republican Party's obscuring its largest contributions and expenditures, which financed direct-mail advertising touting its endorsement of Renke and two other candidates for the bench.

Some of the other charges in the complaint aren't particularly troubling. In one instance, the JQC criticized Renke for telling voters he had been endorsed by public officials in Pinellas County when the backing had come from Republican Party regulars. The subterfuge is apparent, but party officials, as elected precinct representatives, meet the federal criteria of public office holders, according to how Congress determines its free mailing privileges.

Renke also posed in front of a sign for the Southwest Florida Water Management District with the chairman's placard in the foreground. Renke did head a water district river basin board during his tenure at Swiftmud. His mail piece never stated anything to the contrary, despite the JQC allegations.

The JQC has demonstrated an inability to remove disgraced judges from the bench, as evidenced by the continuing career of Charles W. Cope. So, its move into the role of campaign watchdog is welcome as it attempts to keep judicial races above the gutter politicking that so often sours the electorate.

Renke III has until mid-November to answer the allegations in the JQC complaint. He isn't talking, though both his father and the chairman of the Pasco Republican Party blamed dirty politics for the investigation. How ironic, because that's exactly how Renke III got elected and exactly what the JQC wants to terminate.