Four times in the past three months, Pinellas County Judge Susan Bedinghaus has been asked to remove herself from criminal cases because of questions about her fairness, according to court documents.
St. Petersburg Bar Association president Lucas Fleming said he cannot remember a local judge facing so many disqualification motions in a brief period. However, he added that in his dealings with Bedinghaus, he always thought she had been fair.
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger agreed that four such motions in three months is rare. "It's not unheard of, but it's unusual," he said.
Senior Associate Public Defender Kandice Friesen said she has heard ongoing complaints about Bedinghaus' courtroom, including defendants who say they feel pressured to plead guilty or no contest.
"They feel the judge is threatening them with jail, and they feel maybe it would be in their best interest to enter a plea under the circumstances," Friesen said.
But Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Thomas McGrady said considering the hundreds of cases before Bedinghaus at any one time, in the often-contentious Domestic Violence Division, he considered four motions "insignificant."
He said Bedinghaus, who handles misdemeanor cases, is a good judge. "She works hard to make sure everyone's rights are protected, including society and the victims and the defendants," McGrady said.
In all four cases, Bedinghaus removed herself after the motions were filed — as she is required to do.
As long as "legally sufficient" reasons are offered, the judge must grant the request, McGrady said. The exception: if the defendant already has removed a different judge in the case.
McGrady spoke to the Tampa Bay Times on Bedinghaus' behalf, because judges are not supposed to comment on their own cases outside of court. Bedinghaus, 42, a former prosecutor, was elected as a Pinellas County judge in 2006.
Here are summaries of the four cases, each drawn from the defense attorneys' motions:
• In a court hearing on July 22, Bedinghaus would not accept a plea agreement from a 38-year-old Clearwater man charged with violating pretrial release. Her office eventually set a hearing for a later date, which would have resulted in the man spending nearly three extra weeks in jail, according to a motion filed by attorney Joseph Montrone.
Instead, Montrone filed his motion on July 25 to disqualify Bedinghaus, which she granted. The man — who had spent 35 days in the Pinellas County Jail without being formally charged — pleaded no contest on Aug. 1 and was released that day by another judge.
Montrone declined to comment.
• In another case, attorney Andrew Crawford claimed Bedinghaus punished his client "because he failed to admit his guilt and disputed the state's allegations."
The 31-year-old man, accused of battery, wanted to enter a domestic violence intervention program. But Bedinghaus wanted him to admit guilt, even though that is not a program requirement, the motion says.
Bedinghaus also asked the prosecutor if the state wanted to modify the terms of the defendant's pretrial release to prevent him from contacting the victim. But the woman, his fiancee, said in writing that she didn't want to prosecute, and a previous court order allowed the two to have contact, the motion said.
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Bedinghaus' question prompted the state to seek to modify the no-contact order, according to the motion.
Crawford declined to comment.
• Attorney Debra Gell represented a 35-year-old Pinellas jail deputy who had been arrested on charges of battery and violating pretrial release conditions. Bedinghaus said the deputy's 26 weeks of counseling after a previous battery charge apparently had not worked. Gell said in a motion that comment showed Bedinghaus had "a predisposition to a finding of guilt." Also, Bedinghaus began discussing "a case unknown or unrelated to the defendant, leading defendant to believe that the facts of her case were not considered."
After reviewing the two new cases against the deputy, the state attorney's office declined to prosecute them.
Gell would not comment.
• Attorney Lisa McLean represented a 54-year-old St. Pete Beach man who was set for trial on Aug. 26. Bedinghaus called the man — who is a lawyer — to the podium and asked if he understood he would be going to jail if convicted, according to the motion.
The man said he understood that was possible. "Judge Bedinghaus told the defendant not to be 'cocky,' that if convicted he would be taken into custody and that she did not want him to be 'shocked,' " according to the motion.
That exchange prompted the man "to believe that she has predetermined his sentence prior to hearing any testimony or evidence in the case."
McLean could not be reached.
Contact Curtis Krueger at email@example.com or (727) 892-8232. Follow @ckruegertimes.