When Hillsborough County voters ousted Circuit Judge Jared Smith last week, they brought international attention to Tampa. Elections for circuit judge rarely generate clicks or debates. This one did. Smith lost his job almost certainly because of his decision in January about an abortion for a pregnant minor.
A 17-year-old girl came to Smith’s court asking permission to have the procedure without her parents’ consent. Court papers call this minor Jane Doe, a pseudonym that shields her privacy. What Smith wrote when denying Jane Doe’s petition is shielded for the same good reason. But the public learned about his decision when a higher court reversed it in an opinion that reports his analysis.
Smith’s ruling drew attention for focusing on high school grades.
In Florida, a minor who wants an abortion and does not have parental consent for it can receive approval if a judge determines that she is mature enough to make this choice. Judges may not simply announce their answer to that question. Instead, they apply a checklist of maturity factors that include the minor’s intelligence, emotional stability, and credibility in court. Judges also must conclude that the minor understands the conditions and consequences that ensue after termination.
Judge Smith read the checklist to say that Jane Doe could not receive the judicial waiver for the abortion she sought.
Smith noted that during the proceedings in his court Jane Doe testified, in response to a question from her lawyer, that her grades were B’s. Later, however, she testified that her GPA was 2.0, a C average. To Smith the discrepancy showed that Jane Doe was either not intelligent, for having a low GPA, or not credible in court because she’d failed to tell the same story twice.
The appellate court disagreed. Judge Darryl Casanueva observed that Jane Doe’s story could well have been consistent. Current grades for a student can be B’s while, due to weaker performance in the past, a lower GPA persists.
The judges wrote more about whether Jane Doe had proved she was mature enough for an abortion, but at this point Hillsborough voters had heard what they needed to know.
Jane Doe wanted to stop being pregnant. She wasn’t trying to join her school’s honor society. Florida law required her to be mature enough to understand abortion for herself. Termination is not a prize reserved for competitors who excel.
A minor who applies for abortion permission needs protection from one key danger — that someone is pressing her to terminate a pregnancy that she wants to keep. Florida law honors this priority by requiring judges to consider this possibility before they may grant a petition.
Ideally, before going through either abortion or motherhood, a person ought to be mature. But “sufficiently mature,” Florida’s legal standard that a pregnant minor must meet for her abortion to be approved, lets young people be young. Wisdom, experience, and preparation for adult life are not mandatory.
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The 17-year-old who came to Judge Smith had to be mature enough. Hillsborough voters understood, and the nation took note.
Anita Bernstein is a law professor at Brooklyn Law School and the author of “The Common Law Inside the Female Body” (Cambridge University Press 2019).