FORT MYERS — A Lee circuit judge who hasn't presided over a hearing for a year, but reviews cases and signs orders in an office, contends Parkinson's disease doesn't prevent him from working as a judge and calls his critics misinformed or swayed by stereotypes.
Judge Joseph Simpson, seeking a second six-year term, says it wasn't his choice to be removed from the courtroom last July and given a handicap-accessible office, where he works on a paperwork docket, reviewing domestic violence petitions for temporary injunctions, uncontested divorces, probate files and orders.
"I have been asked why run for re-election and be subjected to ridicule for carrying out my judicial duties with Parkinson's, especially after having spent thousands of dollars to be defended against claims of inability to sit as judge," Simpson wrote in a letter to the Daily News, noting that his mind is still sharp and he uses aids to ensure his voice is clear.
"It is my sincere belief that the public suffers when a judiciary does not include persons with disabilities, with the insight, common sense and experience they bring to the bench," he wrote. " … My ability to handle complex legal matters and render sound decisions remains constant."
Simpson detailed his situation in a recent five-page letter to Daily News after the newspaper published a story May 13 about how lawyers and others couldn't understand him, his lack of a hearing docket and the burden it places on judges who share his caseload.
Neither Simpson nor his judicial assistant agreed to interviews for the May 13 story. A Daily News reporter was unable to find or see him because his office isn't accessible without an escort, which wasn't provided.
Circuit Chief Judge Jay Rosman has called Simpson's docket "valuable work" that provides more time for other judges, an accommodation beneficial to the community, the judiciary and Simpson.
But it comes at a time when the state reduced Lee's request for three additional circuit judges to two this year. Lee's circuit civil and probate cases totaled 1.17 million last fiscal year, not including thousands of criminal cases circuit judges hear.
Lee's circuit civil and probate cases totaled 1.17 million last fiscal year. That doesn't include thousands of criminal cases circuit judges hear. In 2010 and 2011, the 20th circuit, which has 31 circuit judges, requested three more. State officials agreed there was a need based on the caseload and then certified it for two more this year.
Colleagues have said Simpson was expected to retire for health reasons, so the race for his seat in the five-county judicial circuit, which includes Collier, prompted two magistrates and three attorneys to file to run at various times before withdrawing.
Simpson said in his letter that he always intended to seek re-election, not retire.
His Aug. 14 opponent, former Lee Magistrate Lisa Spader Porter, who had to leave her position to seek election, has said it was a "complete shock" when Simpson filed to run days before the qualifying deadline.
"I'm running on my own qualifications and ability to be in the courtroom and handle a full docket," said Porter, who is the wife of Lee Circuit Judge J. Frank Porter.
All registered voters in the five-county circuit, including Collier and Lee, can vote in the nonpartisan race.
Attorneys say other Lee circuit judges shared Simpson's caseload as a favor to a colleague they believed was stepping down.
Sheldon "Shelly" Finman, a Fort Myers family attorney, praised Simpson's competence, intelligence and dedication, but said only Porter is qualified to handle a full caseload and hearings.
"(Simpson) does admittedly have a speech and other physical impairment and appears to be using that as a 'sword' in his open defiance to any allegation of judicial incompetence by citing the ADA and his rights to serve as a judge," said Finman, chair of the Lee County Family Law Advocacy Committee.
Finman said two judges told him all judges share about 20 percent of Simpson's caseload. After wondering why it sometimes took up to five weeks for a signed order, Finman said he discovered a case manager who reviews Simpson's cases is now handling more than 200 filings monthly.
"The lawyers and their clients must now wait for approximately 30 days to process an uncontested final judgment, as the other four judges no longer enter uncontested final judgments," Finman said, noting it used to take a week or less.
"I am also concerned that the voters do not misinterpret Judge Simpson's rights under the law as a disabled person to infer he is actually fully competent, as he will at the very least depend upon technological aids to try and effectively communicate as a family court judge," Finman said.
John Mills, a Fort Myers divorce and criminal attorney, called Simpson a brilliant lawyer and judge.
"Unfortunately, his physical disability has affected his ability to administer justice because people can't understand him in the courtroom," Mills said.
Court officials have said that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the judiciary had to make accommodations for Simpson to work and contribute.
In his letter, Simpson said it's widely known he has Parkinson's, which causes his speech to be soft and often rapid.
In 2007, he said, he began using a SpeechEasy fluency device, which enables him to speak more slowly. In 2010, he started using a wireless headset microphone connected to a courtroom receiver and months later, a text-to-speech computer software program. It allows him to type questions that are seen on courtroom monitors and announced.
He said he was "shocked" to discover someone filed a complaint with the Judicial Qualifications Commission in September 2010, questioning his abilities. He called it "baseless," filed by unnamed colleagues and sources.
Simpson's letter to the Daily News included an affidavit and letters from three lawyers who praised his abilities to the JQC in 2010, noting he'd taken extraordinary steps to ensure clear communication.
He was forced to take four months off to undergo "extreme" physical and mental health examinations and spend more than $30,000 to defend himself, he said, noting it proved his competence.
"I choose to continue to fight the course of my disease and hope I do not have to continue fighting unnamed critics, who are either misinformed or prefer to pass judgment based upon assumptions or stereotypes," he said, "and choose to hide behind a secretive facade to carry out their criticism, lacking the courage to come face to face with a person with a disability to offer constructive criticism or encouragement."