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Facing the Supreme Court, Hillsborough Judge Tracy Sheehan is reprimanded

TALLAHASSEE — The judge from Tampa stood in the cool museum hush of the Florida Supreme Court, waiting Wednesday morning for it to be over.

The impressive courthouse at the state capitol can quicken the pulse of even the most seasoned lawyer — all those tall pillars and polished marble, the looming ceilings and gleaming wood. It is a place, as one lawyer put it, that leaves no doubt about the seriousness of why you are here.

The public reprimand of Hillsborough Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan for her 2013 charge of driving under the influence was scheduled for 9 a.m., first on the docket, just before the death penalty appeal of a man convicted of beating six people to death with a baseball bat.

In the courthouse lobby, a polite woman who worked there took Sheehan aside to tell her where to stand at the podium and face the justices when she was called forward, and also that she was not to comment or respond. The woman said this more than once (perhaps because some judges who come here even for something like this are used to having the last word).

Just after 9 a.m., the doors behind the high bench opened dramatically — "Ladies and gentlemen, the Supreme Court of Florida," a court officer intoned — and seven justices stepped through to slowly take their seats.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga called Sheehan forward, the eyes of seven unsmiling judges on her. Her back stayed straight in her conservative black suit.

"Today is a sad day for you and for all of us on this bench," he began.

Lawyers scattered in the courtroom for other cases listened as the chief justice recounted that July night in 2013, how Sheehan was leaving Ybor City and got pulled over and went to jail.

The chief justice spoke of ethical misconduct, of public confidence eroded, of conduct unbecoming to the judiciary. He talked of responsibility and damaged trust. She was determined not to break, even when he said the word "reprehensible." He kept turning pages in front of him.

That night, she did not refuse a breath test and later did not try to have the first-time charge reduced to reckless driving, as happens in such cases. She told a reporter, "I did what I did and I'm going to own up to it and plead guilty and move forward." Sentenced to a year of probation, she had to blow into a device before she could start her car and as she drove to work to prove she was not drinking.

"You accepted full responsibility for your actions," the chief justice was saying from the bench. The court believed this was an "isolated incident" not to be repeated, he said. A second time would draw a harsher response, he said very clearly.

Sheehan — a family law judge who made a name as an advocate for children — knew one justice up on that bench because they had talked about their separate battles with breast cancer. Another had been a fellow instructor at judges' college. They looked steadily back.

"You are hereby reprimanded … " Labarga concluded, "and you are free to leave." It was hard to believe the whole thing, the official end, took less than seven minutes on an October morning. She broke only a little as she walked out of the courtroom.

Outside, the Tallahassee morning fog had lifted.

I asked how it was, and after a minute she said: "Humbling." Never could she have imagined herself here, in front of the state's highest court, for this. "It's very sad from that perspective," she said. Mostly, she does not want that night of "stupid choices" she made to "overwhelm everything else I do."

Then it was back south to Tampa, to her courthouse in Plant City, where she had a docket to do this morning — at 8:30 sharp.