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Attorney appeals Hillsborough judge's order protecting a fellow jurist from questioning

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe revoked a suspect’s bail.
Published Sep. 27, 2014

TAMPA — For more than two decades, Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Chet Tharpe has listened to testimony from some of the area's most hardened criminals. But a recent effort to require him to answer questions under oath about his role in an attempted murder case is not going as smoothly as his daily courtroom proceedings.

On Friday, a month after a judge rejected his demand to question Tharpe, Tampa lawyer Mark O'Brien said he has petitioned Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal to reverse the decision. If he is successful, Tharpe could be forced to reveal the details of his out-of-court communications regarding the case.

Disagreement over whether Tharpe can be deposed — a legal demand that is almost never made of judges — stems from his unusual involvement in the case of Matthew Buendia, a former Marine who shot a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy in 2011. Although Tharpe was not the judge assigned to Buendia's case, or the judge on duty the weekend of his arrest, he intervened and called the jail to revoke Buendia's bond after Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee complained publicly that it was too low.

Tharpe's actions have led to criticism that he overstepped the bounds of Florida's Rules of Criminal Procedure. But they have also led O'Brien to wonder who the veteran jurist talked to, and what evidence was shared with him that would have led him to revoke the $65,000 bond. As Buendia's attorney, he says he has a right to this information.

O'Brien has previously tried to get Gee and Hillsborough State Attorney's Office spokesman Mark Cox to answer these same questions, but both men have successfully fought off his subpoenas. Tharpe has tried to do the same.

In August, Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Lisa Campbell issued a decision rejecting O'Brien's request to depose Tharpe.

"This area of inquiry would require Judge Tharpe to testify about his thought process," she wrote, which "is prohibited by law."

In his petition to the court of appeal, O'Brien wrote that "he is not seeking Judge Tharpe's mental processes." Rather, he has four questions for the judge: Who did you talk to on Oct. 2, 2011? How did you talk to them? When? And what did they tell you?

Campbell did not take well to O'Brien's decision to appeal on Friday. After initially granting his request for a stay, she appeared agitated and quickly reversed herself before moving on to the next case.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

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