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Politics

Judge Jackie Fulford Stirs Mixed Opinions in Florida Politics, Legal Circles

February 28, 2012 - 6:00pm

Jackie Fulford, the judge who ruled unconstitutional the prison privatization measure approved by the Legislature last year and is now deciding whether state employees can be forced to contribute to their retirement, stirs strong feelings in Florida legal and political circles.

To some she's a hard-working judge who keeps politics out of her opinions.

To others, though, -- such as Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Gov. Rick Scott -- her privatization ruling was an example of overreach by Florida's judiciary.

Appointed to the bench in 2009 by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, Fulford, 46, earned her bachelor's degree at Florida Atlantic University and her law degree at Stetson College of Law.

After four years in private practice, she became chief prosecutor in the 2nd Judicial Circuit in 1998.

She was out of her office in the Wakulla County Courthouse this week recuperating from bicycling injuries, her office said.

"She's probably the hardest-working judge I've ever met," said Kelly Overstreet Johnson, who successfully argued the Florida Police Benevolent Association's challenge to prison privatization.

"When you walk in the courtroom, she already has questions" Johnson said. "She's read everything."

While Johnson's praise could be expected, given Fulford's September decision in her favor -- a decision Attorney General Pam Bondi is appealing -- she also acknowledges disagreeing with the judge sometimes. But Johnson, who was on the Judicial Nominating Commission when Fulford was appointed, said she always understands her legal reasoning.

"I think she's an excellent judge."

Not everyone's a fan.

We disagree with the ruling and were currently evaluating our options before moving forward, Jackie Schutz, deputy press secretary for the governor's office said, immediately after Fulford's privatization ruling.

And the governor himself is on record as objecting to the kind of rulings that include Fulford's tossing of the privatization provision.

"It's disappointing when the judiciary thinks they're the Legislature and the governor, when we pass a bill that's clearly constitutional, and they declare it unconstitutional," Scott said in an interview with the News Service of Florida.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, couldn't be reached for comment, but said after the ruling that political motives are behind such cases more than legal niceties. In other words, that judicial challenges are just a way to subvert the legislative process.

"What have liberals historically done?" Haridopolos asked rhetorically in an interview late last year. "When they can't win elections, they go to the courts."

Bob Sanchez, policy director for the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee-based conservative think tank, said with the privatization and pension cases, Fulford just got caught in the spotlight.

While court challenges to legislation, he said, are "opportunities for people who want judicial activism to bring in lawsuits," that's not always the case.

"In the case of Judge Fulford," he said, "these cases were dumped in her lap."

Joe Saunders can be reached at jsaunders@sunshinestatenews.com or (850) 727-0859.

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