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After abortion ruling, Hillsborough County judge faces challenger

Circuit Judge Jared Smith ruling against a teenager seeking permission for an abortion garnered national headlines.
Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Jared Smith.
Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Jared Smith. [ CANDIDATE | Handout ]
Published Jun. 10

A Hillsborough County judge who got national attention with a decision against a minor seeking an abortion — a decision later reversed — now faces a re-election challenger backed by local reproductive rights advocates.

In the Jane Doe case decided in January, Circuit Judge Jared Smith denied permission for a 17-year-old to obtain an abortion without her parents’ consent. Smith said she failed to demonstrate sufficient maturity, intelligence and other qualities to make the decision.

Tampa lawyer Nancy Jacobs filed in April to run against Smith.

Smith’s decision was overruled in a 2-1 decision by the 2nd District Court of Appeals. See the ruling here.

Prevailing judges Darryl Casanueva and Susan Rothstein-Youakim said in their ruling that Smith “abused (his) discretion” and misinterpreted evidence.

The dissenter was Judge John Stargel, husband of state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

A leading abortion rights opponent during her time in the Legislature, Kelli Stargel is now running for a congressional seat representing parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties.

Asked about the appeals court’s criticism, Smith said via email, “I respectfully disagree with their analysis and rather agree with the analysis of the dissenting appellate court judge.”

Stargel’s dissent said, among other things, that the trial court judge who heard her testimony was in the best position to evaluate the girl’s credibility and character.

Smith’s decision is confidential but the appeals court quoted parts of it in its ruling. It attracted attention, including a few national news stories because Smith’s decision was based in part on the girl’s high school grades.

Smith said it’s not true, “(as) several media outlets erroneously reported,” that he denied her request because her grades were too low, a C average.

According to the appeals court decision, in a hearing before Smith she testified in response to a question from her lawyer that she was making B’s, but later said in response to a question from Smith that her grade point average was 2.0, equivalent to C’s.

In his decision, Smith cited the difference and said it “evinces either a lack of intelligence or credibility, either of which weigh against a finding of maturity.”

The appeals court said a previous 2.0 average wasn’t inconsistent with current B grades, and that Smith failed to ask questions to “clarify the ambiguous testimony.” It also said her grades indicated “average intelligence.”

Smith also cited misspellings and grammar errors in her petition, including misspelling the seven-letter name of her former employer; and cited her courtroom demeanor, saying she was “curt” and occasionally cut off the judge.

He said her lack of a driver’s license and lack of a history of caring for younger siblings meant she couldn’t prove maturity; that she had received no professional medical counseling on the consequences of abortion; and that she “has never had any financial responsibilities, even so much as paying her own cell phone bills.”

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The girl has no younger siblings and testified that her parents wouldn’t allow her to get a driver’s license or put her on their car insurance until she was 18.

She said staff at a clinic she went to wouldn’t provide her counseling until she received a judge’s approval for the procedure. She said she wanted to receive counseling before going ahead with the procedure.

The appeals court noted that she has had three jobs, including two at once, has two credit cards and $1,600 in savings, and that her mother pays her cell phone bills as part of child support.

She testified that her father, with whom she lives, opposes abortion except in cases of rape, but that she had discussed having an abortion with her mother, who lives out of state.

The girl testified that she hopes to go to college and join the military, but said having a child would prevent that.

Jacobs is a former assistant state attorney who has been a sole practitioner since 1993 and ran unsuccessfully for county court judgeships in 2012 and 2020.

Smith was appointed a county judge in 2017 by former Gov. Rick Scott and later elected to a circuit court seat.

Both declined to discuss the case or their views on abortion, citing Florida ethics rules limiting comments on cases or legal issues by judicial candidates.

But Jacobs said lawyers and judges take oaths to listen to facts and follow the law.

“When you don’t, that’s when something gets appealed and overturned,” she said.

Smith responded that in five years on the bench, “I have made several thousand rulings of various natures … I have only been reversed one time.

“Being reversed doesn’t indicate a violation of our oath of office or … any unethical conduct.”

Tampa lawyer and abortion rights advocate Gretchen Cothron, backing Jacobs, said female attorneys in the county “are worried because of that decision, and don’t want any young woman to be forced to have a child. … All the events I go to with other female attorneys, the Smith race comes up.”

Jacobs is also backed by local Democratic Party activists including Susan Smith, former chair of the state Democrats’ Progressive Caucus.

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com.

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