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By BILLY TOWNSEND
The Tampa Tribune
BARTOW - Call it the bureaucratic approach to peacemaking.
A “routine” reshuffling of circuit judges in Polk County appears to have laid down a road map to peace in the ongoing legal headknocking between Judge Susan Roberts and Jerry Hill, the 10th Judicial Circuit’s state attorney.
Roberts will move to the family court division on July 2, leaving behind the circuit’s 27 pending first degree murder cases, all of which she was overseeing.
Hill’s office, citing various alleged biases and conflicts, wanted Roberts off those cases. Such a blanket pursuit of disqualification is virtually unprecedented, legal observers said.
The Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland granted disqualification in one case, rejected the blanket request and is still considering removing Roberts in six of the 27 cases.
But the significance of the DCA’s rulings has become largely academic. That’s because administrative Circuit Judge J. David Langford this week announced the judicial reshuffling that will take Roberts off of the murder cases.
She will be replaced by the Circuit Judge J. Michael Hunter.
Langford said the state attorney pressure did not prompt the reshuffling. Polk’s 28 circuit judges typically serve 18-24 month assignments in a division, Langford said. Those assignments are staggered.
So generally, every six months, some number of judges is reassigned. This time, eight judges, including Roberts, will see their assignments change.
State Attorney spokesman Chip Thullbery said the Roberts reassignment seems to be part of the “normal rotation” of judges.
Roberts was put in charge of murder cases on Jan. 1, 2006. When she leaves the assignment in July, she will have been on the job 18 months.
The six Roberts cases remaining in limbo with DCA all share a link to Lakeland police detectives who are involved in an investigation of Roberts’ adult son. That investigation revolves around a “significant head injury” suffered by a child under his care, according to a state attorney’s motion to disqualify Roberts.
The judge has been given temporary custody of the child in question and two other children living with her son, the motion stated.
The state argues that it would be improper for Roberts to oversee trials that involve the two detectives.
Roberts has not commented on the legal dispute with prosecutors.
But Langford said today that she has no choice but to remain mum.
“Judges are not allowed to comment on a pending ruling or case,” he said.