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Trial judge in Hulk Hogan-Gawker case is most reversed in Pinellas

A review of Circuit Judge Pamela A.M. Campbell's cases shows that since 2012, the appellate court has reversed her decisions 22 times, all for errors the court blamed on the judge. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Mar. 26, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Hulk Hogan has plenty of reasons to celebrate his $140 million win against the website Gawker over its publication of a sex tape.

But this fact may give the former professional wrestler pause: Over the last four years, the judge who oversaw his trial has been reversed on appeal more times than any of her colleagues in Pinellas County.

The latest setback for Circuit Judge Pamela A.M. Campbell, who hears civil cases, came at an inopportune moment — in the middle of Hogan's two-week invasion of privacy trial against Gawker Media. With national attention trained on Campbell's courtroom, Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned her decision to keep roughly 2,000 documents confidential, a ruling that could loom large in Gawker's expected appeal.

A review of Campbell's cases shows that since 2012, the appellate court has reversed her decisions 22 times, all for errors the court blamed on the judge.

Among her colleagues on the circuit bench, she leads by a large margin. The next highest is 15 reversals during the same time period. Among Pinellas circuit judges who have had decisions overturned during this time, the average is less than four reversals. Most judges have been overturned three times or fewer.

"The comparative numbers do suggest it's out of line," said Sergio Campos, an associate law professor at the University of Miami who studies civil procedure.

Allowing that reversals are but one way to measure a judge's performance, Campos said it was ''incredibly unusual," for a civil court judge to have such a high number. In criminal court, where low-income defendants can fight their sentences at no cost to themselves, frequent appeals often fuel judges' reversal numbers.

"Most civil cases don't even get past the filing of the complaints because they settle pretty quickly," Campos said.

Lawyers who have appeared before Campbell are loath to discuss her practices on the record — criticizing a judge is not just bad for business, it can land lawyers in trouble with the Florida Bar. But several interviewed for this story said they were not surprised to learn she is the most reversed circuit judge in the county.

Campbell, 60, did not dispute the number of reversals, or defend her judgment in any of the cases.

"The fact that a judge has been overturned on appeal more than her colleagues does not in and of itself mean she is less competent than they," said Stephen Thompson, a spokesman for the Sixth Judicial Circuit, which includes Pinellas and Pasco counties. "It may hinge on the type of cases over which she presides."

Filed in 2012, Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker Media took nearly four years to go to trial and proved vexing for Campbell.

After Gawker.com posted a one-minute and 41-second excerpt of a video showing Hogan having sex with the wife of his best friend, the former wrestler asked the judge to force the website to take it down. Without explaining her reasoning, Campbell ruled in favor of Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea.

In reversing Campbell, the appellate court ruled that granting Bollea's motion for a temporary injunction was an "unconstitutional prior restraint" on the First Amendment. Gawker decided to remove the video anyway, but left up the accompanying commentary, which describes the sexual encounter in unflattering detail.

"Based upon the few interjections the court made during the hearing, it appears that the court believed Mr. Bollea's right to privacy was insurmountable," the appellate court wrote in disagreement. "The circuit court also failed to require Mr. Bollea to post a bond, a very basic and ministerial act."

Over the next few years, as settlement talks failed, Campbell was reversed several more times.

Immediately after Gawker's loss last week, when jurors awarded Bollea $115 million in compensatory damages and another $25.1 million in punitive damages, the website's founder Nick Denton said he planned to appeal. Referring to the unsealed records, which contained evidence suggesting important witnesses in the case had lied under oath, Denton said they had been "improperly withheld" from the jury.

"We all knew the appeals court will need to resolve the case," he said. "We expect to win this case ultimately."

As in Bollea vs. Gawker, where Campbell was found to have improperly sealed documents, the appellate court in 2014 reversed her in another case concerning public records.

That case centered on a couple who sued the city of St. Pete Beach over a land dispute. After settling their lawsuit, they requested the transcript of a private meeting the City Commission had held with its attorney in 2008 in what's known as a "shade meeting." The city refused to hand over the transcript and Campbell ruled in its favor, finding that the city didn't have to disclose the information.

Calling the city's position "remarkable," the appellate court ordered it to release the records.

Attorney Stephen Turner, who represented the couple before Campbell, said the judge was friendly and pleasant. "She was just not very receptive to my argument," he said.

In three of the cases in which Campbell's decisions were overturned, the appellate court ordered new trials.

A graduate of Stetson University College of Law, Campbell practiced guardianship and probate law for years before finding herself in the middle of one of Florida's biggest controversies. She represented the parents of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman whose family fought the removal of her feeding tube, igniting a national debate over life and death. After years of appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take the case, and Schiavo died in 2005.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who intervened in the case on Schiavo's parents' behalf, appointed Campbell to the bench in 2006.

To Bob Dekle, a professor at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law, being frequently reversed on appeal could be the sign of a judge who's willing to stand up for what she believes.

"There's a phenomenon that's pretty common among judges — they are terrified of the R word and they bend over backwards trying to not make decisions that are open to criticism," he said. "A judge who's not afraid to make a decision and not afraid to be reversed, is quite naturally going to be reversed more, and that doesn't mean the judge is not a good judge."

"Of course," he said, there's an alternative. "The other possibility is they don't know what they're doing."

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

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