(ran East edition of Pasco Times)
Beside a row of thick law books on Judge Peyton Hyslop's desk sits a box of nine tiny toy cars, including a police car, a yellow pickup, a blue sedan, a black sports car and _ Hyslop's favorite _ a red 1957 Chevrolet.
In traffic court, Hyslop occasionally rolls the matchbox cars out on his desk, to the delight of a usually packed courtroom and a confused defendant. The cars are used to re-create crash scenes, often illustrating how perceptions can be skewed from reality.
"People in crashes often don't have good recollections," says a smiling Hyslop, 52, who denies he's ever played with the cars during long-winded attorney soliloquies, but admits he may doodle on a pad of paper.
Today, the cars get packed with Hyslop's books, certificates and even the emergency tie he keeps in his desk drawer on slow days.
Hyslop will complete a 15-year tenure on the bench late today, when he finishes a 300-case-long docket, filled with misdemeanor and traffic offenders hoping to resolve their cases before a county judge perceived as more lenient.
Hyslop lost his job in September's primary election to Don Scaglione, assistant state attorney. Scaglione won the county judge race with 54.77 percent of the vote. His first day is Jan. 10.
Controversy marked Hyslop's tenure and might have led to his defeat, local politicians and attorneys say.
Hyslop had earned a reputation for being a thorn in the county's side, because of his decisions against government. But Hyslop has more often ruled in the county and state's favor, except in several controversial or higher profile civil cases.
Just last week, Hyslop decided against the county, when he said the county owed its Florida Water customers about $3-million in regulatory fees, a case county commissioners will consider appealing on Tuesday.
A few years ago, county attorneys had cited Hyslop's refusal to uphold some politically charged rules, like watering restrictions, as part of the reason they started looking into "special master" hearings. Now most county code disputes are handled by a special master, a private attorney hired by the county to adjudicate those who challenge citations and fines.
On the criminal side, Hyslop's bail-setting practices drew ire from local prosecutors and other judges. Hyslop maintained his right to lower some bail, based on his evaluation of the case. He often said setting an unreasonably high bail imposed a sentence before a trial. The Florida Supreme Court backed him up.
A year before the election, the issue was resurrected when the circuit's chief judge, Victor Musleh, revoked Hyslop's authority to preside over felony first appearances.
Some speculate that move sank Hyslop's political career.
"He always did what he thought was right, no matter what the public perception was," said Hyslop's judicial assistant, Joannah Holt, who was fired from her job after 19 years with the court system. Her last day also is today.
"Never in 15 years did he ever make a decision for public perception. Not a lot of people have that strength, that conviction."
Several attorneys who have come before Hyslop over the years said they respected Hyslop as fair, even if they didn't always agree with his decisions.
"I never, never saw him lose his temper or raise his voice, when he had more than sufficient provocation to do so," defense attorney Jimmy Brown said. "He's scrupulous at protecting people's rights on the civil and criminal side of the court."
Although the election results shocked and dismayed Hyslop for a couple of weeks, he says he has no regrets about his campaign nor a single case he decided over his tenure on the bench.
"A lot of times, I've ruled in ways I didn't think was the right way to rule personally, but I followed the law," Hyslop said. "What's legal and what's right are not necessarily the same things."
For most of his last month on the job, Hyslop reassumed his quirky, laid-back and even irreverent demeanor in the court room.
"Ahh, the always official, but seldom accurate, Florida driver's record," said Hyslop, acknowledging paperwork inconsistencies during traffic court hearings early in December.
During the hearings, Hyslop squared with people, explaining their charges and advising them what they're up against. He told two child support dodgers they should seek an attorney because they had been jailed longer than the maximum time allowed, 48 hours, without a hearing.
As usual, the tiny courtroom was packed tighter than it ever had been 15 years ago, when Hyslop first started conducting court.
Hyslop was 37 and had been working as a full-time assistant county attorney when he took the job.
While new courtrooms were under construction in the government complex building, Hyslop held court in a dimly lit, plumbing-challenged building across the street. A giant brown support pole obscured his view of the courtroom.
"Used to be there was a noticeable drop in cases when people went back North," said Hyslop, who has lived in Florida since 1960 and in Hernando County since 1985.
With the population surge, county court grew incredibly busy over the years, with thousands more traffic citation cases, such as speeding, and hundreds more county code infractions, such as watering lawns illegally.
This year, the Florida Supreme Court agreed Hernando County needs another county court judge and has asked the Legislature to pay for a second position this year in the 2005-06 budget.
Hyslop said he'd consider such an opening if it came available.
Until then, Hyslop has applied for the job of School Board attorney. He said he might consider another political run for another office, but didn't say what political party he would choose. Hyslop has been registered no party for years.
And even though today is officially his last day, he has one more judicial duty this month.
He was invited to present a session at an educational conference for county judges. He will talk about how to conduct general first appearance hearings, including those charged with felonies, which he hasn't been allowed to preside over in Hernando County for the past year.
"It is kind of odd," Hyslop said.
Jennifer Liberto can be reached at (352) 848-1434 or libertosptimes.com.