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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, May 7, 2004 16 years ago

Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

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This week's items: Christopher Debock challenging Hillsborough County Judge Artemus Elton McNeil in primary election Will Hillsborough Count close the financials in guardianship cases?Legal profession, state survive

Coffee Talk (Tampa edition)

Change of plan

Christopher A. Debock has changed his mind about challenging 13th Circuit Public Defender Julianne Holt at the polls. Earlier this year, the former 13th Circuit assistant public defender told the St. Petersburg Times he intended to ask voters for her job. Instead, Debock will challenge Hillsborough County Judge Artemus Elton McNeil at the Aug. 31 primary election. Debock becomes the third person to file against an incumbent Hillsborough County judge. Tampa attorney Kim Hernandez Vance of Cohn & Cohn PA has filed to run against Judge Charlotte Anderson. Tampa creditors' rights attorney Victor Veschio has filed to run against Judge Paul Huey.

There also is one other contested county judge's race. Tampa attorneys Henry Gill, Elizabeth Rice and Brad Souders want to replace retiring Judge Elvin Martinez.

Debock brings some controversy to the race. Twice he has pleaded guilty to violating rules that regulate Florida attorneys.

In 1988, the Florida Supreme Court suspended Debock's law license for 30 days on a charge that as an assistant Broward County state attorney he did not report a bribe offer. Florida Bar records show he immediately rejected the offer.

In 1996, the state's highest court also fined Debock $839 as a solo practitioner in the 9th Judicial Circuit on a charge that he failed to disclose a conflict of interest to a client.

Prior to joining Holt's office, Debock worked as a capital collateral representative, an attorney who represents death row convicts.

Still unopposed in Hillsborough are county judges James V. Dominguez, Nick Nazaretian, Michelle Sisco and Raul C. Palomino Jr. The cutoff date is May 7. Candidates would then vie for voter attention at the Aug. 31 primary. If needed, a runoff election would take place during the Nov. 2 general election.

At the circuit level, only incumbents have filed so far. They are judges Manual A. Lopez, Anthony K. Black, Charles "Ed" Bergmann, Denise Almeida Pomponio, Susan Sexton, William Fuente and Emmett "Lamar" Battles.

There goes the sunshine

Hillsborough County is about to join the Pinellas County judiciary's rush to close from public view most financial details of guardianship cases.

That's the prediction from David J. Rowland, legal counsel for the 13th Judicial Circuit that covers Hillsborough.

Manuel Menendez Jr., Hillsborough's chief judge, has asked Rowland to research a 14-year-old administrative order issued by his predecessor, F. Dennis Alvarez. (See "Guarding the Guardians," GCBR, April 30-May 6). Using an exception in state law, Alvarez decreed in 1990 that all financial reports in all Hillsborough guardianship cases would be open to public inspection.

Guardians are appointed by judges to handle the assets of people who cannot do that for themselves. Robert W. Melton, the top auditor for Pinellas Circuit Court Clerk Karleen F. DeBlaker, praised Alvarez's order at a public hearing of a state guardianship task force last month. Melton has drawn fire from Pinellas judges for his desire to conduct more thorough audits of guardianships in the county.

Perhaps prompted by Melton's praise of the order, David A. Demers, chief judge for the 6th Judicial Circuit covering Pasco and Pinellas counties, picked up the telephone to Menendez.

Demers and Mel Grossman, a Broward County probate judge who sits on the state task force, have criticized Alvarez's order as an improper interpretation of a state law that they say was intended to keep a ward's financial affairs confidential.

"With all due respect to the Chief Judge who entered that order 14 years ago, we have a difference of opinion as to whether such an Administrative Order is appropriate," Demers spokesman Ron Stuart told GCBR, relaying a message from his boss. "It is my view that the statute and the rule contemplate that the probate judge will make such decisions on a case by case basis."

Coffee Talk can only guess at the exact nature of the judicial phone conversation. But the next thing that Rowland knew, Menendez wanted the court counsel to determine the justification for and the legality of Alvarez's order.

Rowland told GCBR it is doubtful that Alvarez's order will stand for much longer.

Protecting the financial privacy of defenseless citizens, which Demers and Grossman says the law champions, is certainly a laudable goal. But letting only court personnel and guardianship representatives see asset inventories and annual accountings reduces the ability of outsiders privy to improprieties to bring proof of their concerns to the court's attention.

The secrecy also has a side benefit for probate judges, who may get swamped with guardianship cases over the next decade as Baby Boomers head for the nursing home: Their possibly hasty rulings won't get much outside scrutiny.

Legal profession, state survive

Contrary to popular belief, especially among Florida lawyers, not all state legislators hate them.

Want proof?

The Trial Court Budget Commission won a $115 million appropriation for the first year that the state and not counties will fund as well as run local courts. The commissioners are generally happy with that number, especially since they will be able to tap working capital funds for any unexpected shortfalls.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, and his appropriations chairman, Bruce Kyle, R-Fort Myers, were hell bent to create a sixth district court of appeal during the just-concluded legislative session, with or without the legally required blessing of the state judiciary.

But the speaker, whose unpopularity in Tallahassee was starting to rival that of trial lawyers toward the end, got denied by his opposite number in the Senate, Jim King, R-Jacksonville.

Unfortunately for those who have to deal with overcrowded courts in heavily populated counties, a request for more judges perished with the DCA legislation. The Legislature hasn't funded any new judges since 2002. Better luck next year.

Steve Metz, chief legislative counsel for The Florida Bar, told members in his first post-adjournment report that prickly relations between Byrd and King made for a "very bizarre" last week of the 2004 regular session. On the final day, April 30, senators stood around waiting for the petulant Byrd to send over House bills for action. Most never arrived.

While Byrd passes from the state Capitol scene, King's successor, Republican Tom Lee of Brandon, has lawyer advertising on his radar screen for the 2005 session.

Metz urged the Bar to deal with the issue before next year, "because the incoming Sen[ate] President Tom Lee will take action if we don't."

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