Tampa Bay Times endorses problematic judge who denied a 17-year-old an abortion for having a C average

The judge also ties his personal religion to his campaign, thus infringing on the separation of Church and State.

Tampa Bay Times endorses problematic judge who denied a 17-year-old an abortion for having a C average
The Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board has endorsed a Hillsborough County candidate for judge who was found to have abused his discretion in trying to prevent a 17-year-old from getting an abortion.

And on top of that, he's tying in religion to his campaign for judge, thus infringing on the often overstepped Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: The separation of Church and State.

The Times' chosen candidate is Jared E. Smith, candidate for Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge, group 37, where he is the incumbent. He made national headlines in January when he cited a teenager's grades as the reason why she should not be permitted to get an abortion.

The teen, named "Jane Doe" in court documents, said that she didn't feel ready to have a child. She was thinking about joining the military, and then hoped to become a nurse.

Smith said that because Doe had a C average in school and because she wasn't fully able to take care of herself at her age, that she shouldn't be able to make a decision about what to do with her own reproductive system, and ruled against her getting an abortion.

In court records, Smith argued that Doe has, "never had any financial responsibilities, even so much as paying her own cellphone bills.”

But higher judges from a panel that overturned Smith's ruling found that at the time, Doe worked around 20 hours a week, and had $1,600 in savings. While she lived in her parents house, she paid for other costs of living.

Despite Smith's decision, a Florida panel of judges declared the teen mature enough to earn a “judicial bypass,” a legal process that allows minors to get abortions without the consent of their parents, in a 2-1 ruling in the Florida Second District Court of Appeal.

The Times endorsed Smith last week, while at the same time mentioning the controversy surrounding him earlier this year.

"Smith’s decision is troubling, but on the whole, he’s still a stronger choice," the Times editorial board wrote, without explaining why Smith is a stronger choice than his opponent, Nancy L. Jacobs.

The article explained that  Smith continues to stand by his flawed ruling, and that "the humility to acknowledge and learn from the mistake would go a long way."

But the Times didn't consider Smith's decision disqualifying, instead, writing that "His broad legal experience, and the testament to his professionalism by a wide range of trial lawyers, justify giving him another chance."

Smith's opponent, Jacobs, is a former state prosecutor who became a criminal defense and family law attorney in 1993.  She currently provides low-cost and pro-bono services to those who cannot afford legal services and in her free time is involved in animal rescue and welfare.

"I'm running on the Constitution, that is the main and only job of the judge," Jacobs told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. "A judge's job is to make sure that they're listening to the facts in a particular case and applying the law to the facts, and making sure that everyone gets a fair shake that comes into that courtroom. Really, the only thing that should matter in the courtroom should be the rule of law."

Smith did not respond to request for comment, but in a video sent to CL, his wife Suzette said that Jacobs needs to be saved by God while speaking to members of a Christian church.

"We pray for her, she needs Jesus," she said to a church crowd. "To deny God and to deny the Bible is a person that the heart is very hard toward God."

A portion of the video has been posted on YouTube.

There are two problems with this statement. One is that Jacobs does not share the same religion as the Smiths, she practices Judaism, and the second is that as she explained, a person's religion should not take precedence in a race for judge.

Jacobs sent CL a response to the video via email:
I am constrained by the Canons of Judicial Ethics as to how I can respond, particularly because I can find no JQC guidance on what is permissible commentary by me in the extraordinary context of my opponent judicial candidate campaigning for his judgeship primarily on the basis of his faith and not his fairness. In the United States of America— which was founded on religious freedom— it is very troubling to hear a judicial candidate, and/or his wife, acting as his surrogate while he looks on and nods, using their religion to insult and disparage the faith of an opposing candidate. It should make voters uncomfortable too, particularly voters like me who may not share their religion, or practices to hear the Smiths use their religion as a campaign issue for his election to the bench. Although my religion may be different from theirs, I am a person of deep faith too, but I know there is only supposed to be one religion for a judge in the courthouse, and that is devotion to the Rule of Law.
Local civil rights lawyer Gretchen Cothron told CL that she is troubled by TBT's endorsement of Smith.

"I worry that the candidate [Smith] will be unable to respect the separation of church and state, and that their particular religion will cloud their judgment, as they are already mixing politics and religion in their campaign," Cothron said. "[Smith] has been seen in videos campaigning at a church with his wife who requests the people present to enlist prayer warriors to vote for him. This is very troubling."

When asked for an explanation, TBT refused to elaborate.

"Our recommendation speaks for itself," the Times wrote to CL via email. "We have no further comment.”

But the Times recommendation doesn't speak for itself. It continually points out all the suspect aspects of Smith's time as judge before repeating that he's the "stronger choice" without evidence. What's more is that the Times endorsement of Smith doesn't say why Jacobs should not be elected.

Instead, the Times leans on the argument that "we don't consider this single ruling disqualifying." Nevermind that Smith, appointed by Rick Scott in 2017, could one day very well end up on a Florida Supreme Court that could decide on reproductive rights for the states' most vulnerable people.

The refusal of a media entity to explain their reasoning behind supporting such a problematic candidate only raises more questions about their endorsement process, leaving Cothron unsettled.

"I am disappointed that TBT would endorse any candidate that is running on a religious platform," she said. 

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia previously wrote for the USA Today Network, The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Scalawag Magazine, and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

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