Accusations fly in Hillsborough County judicial race

Normally political rules keep candidates for judge from saying much about their opponents.
Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Jared Smith (left) is facing a challenge from Nancy Jacobs.
Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Jared Smith (left) is facing a challenge from Nancy Jacobs. [ Courtesy of candidates ]
Published July 30, 2022|Updated July 31, 2022

A contentious circuit judgeship race in Hillsborough County is violating the norms of usually quiet judicial contests, as the two candidates and their supporters bash each other publicly and file or threaten ethics complaints.

The bitterness stems from an overturned decision by Judge Jared Smith in a case of a minor seeking an abortion.

Smith, a deacon at politically conservative Idlewild Baptist Church, has injected a religious tone into his re-election campaign, including what supporters of his challenger, Nancy Jacobs, who is Jewish, call anti-Semitism.

Jacobs said she has filed a complaint against Smith with the state Judicial Qualifications Commission.

She won’t say what it’s about, citing restrictions on judicial candidates’ public statements about each other. But she has publicly accused Smith and his wife of “using their religion to insult and disparage the faith of an opposing candidate,” she said in a statement.

Supporters of Smith, meanwhile, have talked about filing a complaint against Jacobs.

Smith wouldn’t discuss a possible complaint, but some of his supporters have noted Jacobs’ public comments on the Jane Doe abortion case. Florida has strict rules limiting judicial candidates’ public statements on legal issues.

Smith has received endorsements from across the political spectrum — including former Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Public Defender Julianne Holt, a number of retired judges, lawyers and others — but the abortion case ruling has spurred widespread opposition among reproductive rights advocates.

Smith ruled against a 17-year-old seeking an abortion without parental consent, citing her C-average grades, courtroom demeanor and lack of proof of maturity. An appeals court overturned the ruling, saying he had misinterpreted evidence.

Jacobs has cited the appeals court’s criticism and reposted on her campaign Facebook page criticism of the decision by her supporters.

Smith, meanwhile, is making campaign appearances in local Christian churches.

In one such appearance, Smith stood with his wife, Suzette Smith, while she told the crowd he wants to deliver the message that, “I’m a believer, I’m a judge and I’m a Christian,” and portrayed the campaign as a religious crusade aided by God, who “fights the battle for us.”

Asked by an audience member about a possible ethics complaint against Jacobs, Suzette Smith said that was possible but the commission is “really slow to take action.”

“We pray for her. She needs Jesus,” Smith said. “To deny God and to deny the Bible is a person that’s — the heart is very hard toward God.”

Smith said she and her husband regularly fast in hope that God will reward them, and their fasting resulted in more invitations to campaign in churches and prevented another candidate from filing against him.

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In a written statement, Jacobs called her comments “troubling.”

“Although my religion may be different from theirs, I am a person of deep faith too, but I know there is only supposed to be one religion for a judge in the courtroom … the Rule of Law,” Jacobs said.

In a statement on Smith’s campaign Facebook page, Suzette Smith denied anti-Semitism, saying she is a former history teacher who taught lessons about the Holocaust. She added that Jared Smith has “close relatives that he loves dearly who are Jewish,” and “Our family has always respected Israel and the Jewish people.”

In developments unusual in a judgeship race, a mailer attacking Smith over the abortion decision, sponsored by a local progressive political committee, recently hit county mailboxes, and videos attacking Jacobs for a “woke … liberal agenda” have been posted on the Tampa Bay Today Facebook page.