Your Honor, I Object

A New Year for Tampa Bay judges? Let's hope so.

It was bitterly cold on the day I went down to the Hillsborough courthouse to pick up a copy of former bailiff Tara Pisano's 40-page journal detailing sex, power and debauchery behind the doors of a judge's chambers.The weather was appropriate to the subject matter, because for all the steaminess of the 16-month extramarital affair that Pisano recounts with (now former) Circuit Judge Gasper Ficarrotta, the document is a frigid indictment of how completely judicial power can corrupt.

Written at the insistence of her attorney after the affair ended in 1999 and released as part of her pending divorce case, Pisano's account is old news by some standards. The lurid details (sex in Ficarrotta's office, the judge wearing her thong underwear, Ficarrotta ordering her to wear his robe so she could "feel its power," threats of Mafia intimidation, and so forth) have long since been published, thanks to grand jury investigations and depositions in other cases.

Taken as a whole, however, the journal is a jaw-dropping account of just how much power judges have and how much freedom they are given to create and rule their own little kingdoms.

In Ficarrotta's case, that meant turning his taxpayer-funded offices into a close approximation of my first dorm room in college (except he apparently had much more sex than I did).

"He used his office like it was his private apartment," Pisano wrote. "He had a couch, a blanket, another blanket that folded into a pillow, two small pillows, a radio boom box, many candles, a TV/VCR combo, a microwave, a small refrigerator, a coffee maker, eating utensils, snacks, cold drinks, beer, wine, piña colada, margarita mix, all the comforts of a home."

"He wanted to have sex on his couch, in the dark, in the light, with candles burning, in his desk chair, in his hearing room, in his closet, on the floor, sitting, standing… ," Pisano's journal says. "The sexual encounters in his judicial office were countless."

Neither Pisano nor Ficarrotta responded to requests for interviews for this article.

Voyeurism aside, there are larger issues in these 40 pages. Enablement. Power. Lack of accountability. Throughout the document, Pisano writes dozens of names of people who knew about her affair, from bailiffs to judicial assistants to judges. Ficarrotta's behavior was not entirely furtive; it was tolerated (at best) or aided and abetted (at worst).

Over the past decade, Tampa Bay has been subject to courthouse scandal after courthouse scandal. Just before Ficarrotta's indiscretions came to light, (now former) Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno was caught sneaking around inside another judge's office. Before that, (now former) Circuit Judge Ed Ward was investigated on sexual harassment charges before resigning in 2000.

Pinellas County, never one to let its neighbor to the east get ahead of it, had its own high-profile scandal in (now former) Circuit Judge Charles Cope, who opted to take his sexual hijinks on the road. Cope was arrested in 2001 in Carmel, Calif., following a drunken misadventure with a mother and daughter who accused him of trying to break into their hotel room. He pleaded no contest to public intoxication; five other misdemeanor charges were dropped.

The Florida Supreme Court reprimanded Cope, but it was angry lawmakers, not outraged judges, who drove him from office. The threat of impeachment in Tallahassee did what a reprimand could not.

Cope wasn't the first Pinellas judge to get bounced from the bench. (Now former) Circuit Judge Bonnie Newton was voted out of office in 1998 after the Judicial Qualifications Commission filed charges against her for "abusive, demeaning and sarcastic" behavior on the bench, and (now former) Pinellas County Judge Mary Jean McAllister was removed from the bench in 1994 for sexually harassing her judicial assistant, among other things.

In many of the above cases, chief judges on both sides of the bay essentially copped the same plea: "We have no authority to discipline our brethren beyond transferring them to another division." But not all Tampa Bay area judges buy that argument, and it is part of the reason why Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer (a client of mine when I was a political consultant) is finding support for his bid for chief judge against David Demers, who was one of two chief judges publicly criticized for not handling Cope's case with more open forcefulness.

Judicial misbehavior has a clear psychological pathology, according to at least one expert on judges and their power.

Washington, D.C., psychiatrist Dr. Isaiah Zimmerman, who studies judges and the stress they come under, writes about the effects of judicial isolation, how it combines with absolute power to create, in some individuals, a dangerous brew.

"Despite the ritual requirement to appear modest and even unworthy, the net effect is one of a heady rise in esteem and social worth," Zimmerman wrote in a 2000 essay. "Under the combined effect of having little time for personal life and being continually treated like a demigod, it should not surprise anyone that the phenomenon humorously referred to as 'robe-itis' can emerge."

Zimmerman believes that 70 percent of judges fail to combat the social isolation and chronic overwork, and fall prey to a gradual withdrawal from intellectual and community pursuits, a slow disconnection that is often imperceptible to its victims.

So I spoke to a few of the judges I helped elect over the years as a consultant. Most sighed at the thought of another recitation of the list of evils done by area judges. But all agreed with Zimmerman that it is important to maintain ties to family, friends, community and social endeavors. They all have felt or seen the effects of the isolation, stress and pressure.

One whose viewpoint rang loudest was Pinellas County Judge Walt Fullerton, who has a history of speaking out about bad judges. That forthrightness has earned him some enmity among a few of his colleagues; they think that judges ought to circle the wagons when one gets in trouble.

"Sometimes, judges stay in such isolation," Fullerton said. "You seldom see the people down the hall unless you make a point of doing so. The ownership of divisions and cases, I've often said we ought to break that down."

Fullerton makes it a point to stay connected, either at Rotary meetings or bar association meetings. New judges these days are taught stress-busting techniques and warned about "robe-itis." But that's not enough. We need to find some ways to demystify our judges while still granting them the respect they need to do the job. We need to make them accountable for their time, since they now have unlimited medical leave, unlimited sick time and total freedom to set their own calendars. We need to find a way to separate the bailiffs from the Sheriff's Office and disconnect the backroom political ties between the judges and the sheriff. We need chief judges who will speak out when they can't get judges to mend their ways behind the scenes.

I'm not suggesting we treat judges like children. I'm advocating that we stop treating them like gods.

[email protected].

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