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Widespread use of senior judges questioned

TAMPA — The presiding judge in courtroom 510 in the George Edgecomb Courthouse retired eight years ago.

Yet on a recent Wednesday morning, the Honorable Sandra Taylor — a black robe draping her shoulders — was busy working her $350-a-day part-time job.

Unlike most of the other judges in the 13th Judicial Circuit, Taylor was never elected to the bench in Hillsborough County, nor was she appointed by the governor. In fact, she doesn't even live here.

Taylor, 67, is a senior judge. Retired judges like her are called in to hear cases in the absence of a regular judge. In essence, they are the substitute teachers of the state court system.

Senior judges are nothing new. But in recent years, courts have relied on them more and more, especially in dealing with the massive backlog of foreclosure cases resulting from the 2008 housing crisis.

That has raised some eyebrows, especially among foreclosure defense lawyers.

One of them, Matt Weidner of St. Petersburg, recently challenged the practice before the state Supreme Court.

"This is a constitutional question," Weidner said. "This transcends foreclosures."

• • •

Florida has 209 senior judges. In the last year, 15 of them worked in Hillsborough. The chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court grants their senior status following an application process.

Among the requirements: They must not have been defeated for re-election or failed to win a merit retention vote in their last judicial office before retirement. Once approved, the Supreme Court allows them to serve as judges anywhere in the state.

Florida's constitution permits the assignment of retired judges as they are needed. But it specifies that such assignments are supposed to be temporary.

That is part of what irks Weid-ner, who has made the senior judge issue something of a personal crusade. Weidner argued that their assignments in foreclosure divisions are not temporary.

In April, he filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court.

"Surely this court must recognize," he wrote, "that the Florida Constitution does not contemplate, and in fact it expressly forbids, the permanent maintenance of a corps of 'super' senior judges, who sit entirely immune from the constitutional restrictions that every other judge in this state complies with."

Weidner noted, among other things, the constitutional requirement that judges live "in the territorial jurisdiction of the court" and the prohibition of judges continuing to serve beyond age 70.

A state committee that reviewed senior judge practices in 2002 justified both of these practices. They wrote that since senior judges are accountable to the Supreme Court's chief justice, they should be able to serve statewide. They also recommended periodic reviews of senior judges to ensure they are still fit to serve.

Eight weeks after Weidner's petition, the court dismissed it. But he hasn't given up the cause. He sees the frequent use of senior judges as a symptom of the greater problem of an underfunded judiciary.

"I think there is a significant group of people that think at least some of the senior judges are problematic," said Tom Hall, a former clerk of the Florida Supreme Court. "My own opinion is the use of senior judges is necessary. The Legislature has, despite numerous requests to fund new courts, kept turning that down."

In a 2003 opinion, the state Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the senior judge system. The justices noted the cost effectiveness and efficiency senior judges provide.

But in a partial dissent, Justice R. Fred Lewis noted that some circuits had essentially created permanent senior judge divisions.

"In reaching its decision, the majority must engage in a 'judicial wink' as it considers the true definition of 'temporary,' " he wrote.

• • •

Taylor, 67, had a long legal career in Monroe County. She was the chief judge for the 16th Judicial Circuit, which covers the Florida Keys, when she retired in 2008. Shortly thereafter came the foreclosure crisis.

Taylor's husband, a real estate agent, was caught in the middle of the turmoil. She said it became important for her to find new work.

She found it in, among other places, St. Augustine (where she now lives), Daytona Beach, Sarasota and Tampa.

Taylor grew up in Tampa. She is a graduate of Chamberlain High School. Through her judicial colleagues, she obtained a semi-regular schedule in Hillsborough's foreclosure division.

"Tampa has historically made it very easy for me to do it," she said.

Unlike other out-of-county judges, Taylor does not request reimbursement for travel expenses. About once a month, she makes the trek from St. Augustine. She stays in her RV, which she keeps in east Tampa. Downtown, she has a small judicial chamber, with personal pictures on the walls and a small window near the ceiling.

"Considering the type of work we're assigned, the people that work here are so helpful," she said. "They make me feel welcome."

• • •

Senior judges make $350 a day. On an annual basis, that adds up to significantly less than the $146,079 that circuit judges make or the $138,019 that county judges make.

In Hillsborough, they are called in to work in various civil and criminal divisions. Some work more than others. But no one works quite as much as Taylor and Senior Judge Perry Little, who retired from Hillsborough in 2006.

Both share the older foreclosure cases. According to court administrative records, from September 2015 to August 2016, Taylor worked 108 days; Little worked 118.

Judges retired from other nearby counties also fill vacancies from time to time.

Judge Robert Beach, 86, who retired in 1993 from the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit, logged 11 days in Hillsborough between September 2015 and August 2016.

J. Rogers Padgett, who retired from Hillsborough in 2008, worked 64 days in criminal and civil divisions between September 2015 and August 2016.

Padgett, 78, said senior judging is a way of keeping a hand in the local legal community.

"If you are a good judge and you're called to handle someone's division, then you'll do it the way you always did it and nobody will complain about it," Padgett said.

"I've never heard anybody else complain except Mr. Weidner in St. Pete," he said. "It's really much ado about nothing."

Whether that's true is something that Weidner is sure to keep debating. Mark Stopa, a Tampa foreclosure defense lawyer, noted that the Legislature recently stopped allocating money for senior judges to handle foreclosures now that the backlog has been reduced.

In Hillsborough, which is disbanding its main foreclosure division, senior judges will still handle the older cases, said Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta. He noted that the last time the Legislature approved new trial court judges was in 2006. Senior judges help carry the burgeoning case load, he said.

"(They) are a valuable resource," Ficarrotta said. "Quite frankly, we would be very hard-pressed without putting them to work."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

Widespread use of senior judges questioned 10/28/16 [Last modified: Saturday, October 29, 2016 9:45pm]
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