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Did anti-abortion ruling lead to sitting Hillsborough County judge’s defeat?

“I think it means that abortion is on the ballot,” said the county’s Democratic chairperson.
Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Jared Smith (left) was upset Tuesday by challenger Nancy Jacobs.
Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Jared Smith (left) was upset Tuesday by challenger Nancy Jacobs. [ Courtesy of candidates ]
Published Aug. 25|Updated Aug. 25

Hillsborough County Democrats are exuberant about Nancy Jacobs’ defeat of Circuit Judge Jared Smith in Tuesday’s primary, saying it signals that backing reproductive rights will energize voters in November.

Jacobs, who practices criminal defense and family law, has run unsuccessfully for judge twice before. She defeated Smith 52-48 percent after a contentious campaign in which a decision by Smith denying a minor permission for an abortion was an issue.

Smith, who is active in a conservative evangelical church, was appointed by then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2017 and elected in 2018 to a county judgeship. He was then appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to a circuit judgeship in 2019.

It’s unusual for lawyers even to challenge a sitting circuit judge, in part because they fear angering someone they may appear before.

Jacobs’ candidacy, and her backing by reproductive rights advocates, was inspired partly by the Jane Doe case in which Smith ruled against a 17-year-old seeking an abortion without parental consent. He said she failed to demonstrate the maturity and intelligence to make that decision.

His ruling was overturned on appeal.

Unlike more typically staid, quiet judicial races, there was negative campaigning and harsh rhetoric from both sides.

Hillsborough County Democratic Party chairperson Ione Townsend called it the county’s most significant election outcome from Tuesday’s elections and said, “I think it means that abortion is on the ballot.”

She said Smith “brought his religious beliefs into the courtroom and didn’t follow the law” in the abortion case.

“I think that by November, abortion rights, defending democracy and inflation will be the top three issues,” she said. “All around the country we are beginning to see women mobilizing.”

She predicted a repeat of wins by large numbers of women candidates nationwide in 2018.

Local GOP official April Schiff acknowledged she was “concerned” when the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was announced because “I believe it will drive Democrats, particularly women, to the polls.”

“But I don’t think you can credit that single issue for (Jacobs’) win,” Schiff said. “Part of it is just the way the campaigns were conducted. There were religious overtones and accusations of anti-Semitism that probably hurt him whether it was intended or not.

“It’s also not the first time we’ve seen a woman take out a sitting judge,” said Schiff, citing Wendy DePaul’s upset defeat of Steven Scott Stephens in 2020. Schiff said women candidates appear to have an advantage in judicial races in which voters know little about the candidates.

Via email, Smith said Wednesday he had no comment on questions including the reasons for his loss and whether he intends to run for or seek appointment to the bench again.

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