Lee judge who doesn't hear cases runs again, 'complete shock' to opponent

Joe Simpson

Photo by David Ahntholz .da

Joe Simpson

Aisling Swift/Staff 
 Outside Lee Circuit Judge Joseph A. Simpson's fourth-floor office is a sign saying he's moved to courtroom 1C and office No. 1426. But when you go to the first floor, you'll find a door marked construction zone, not an office or courtroom.

Photo by Aisling Swift

Aisling Swift/Staff Outside Lee Circuit Judge Joseph A. Simpson's fourth-floor office is a sign saying he's moved to courtroom 1C and office No. 1426. But when you go to the first floor, you'll find a door marked construction zone, not an office or courtroom.

Aisling Swift/Staff 
 Outside Lee Circuit Judge Joseph A. Simpson's fourth-floor office is a sign saying he's moved to courtroom 1C and office No. 1426. But when you go to the first floor, you'll find a door marked construction zone, not an office or courtroom.

Photo by Aisling Swift/Staff

Aisling Swift/Staff Outside Lee Circuit Judge Joseph A. Simpson's fourth-floor office is a sign saying he's moved to courtroom 1C and office No. 1426. But when you go to the first floor, you'll find a door marked construction zone, not an office or courtroom.

— He hasn't had a hearing docket since July 1.

If you look for Lee Circuit Judge Joseph A. Simpson's fourth-floor courtroom and office in Fort Myers, you'll find a sign saying he moved to the first floor, to courtroom 1-C and office No. 1426. Neither exists. Instead, you'll find a construction zone.

Colleagues said Simpson was expected to retire for health reasons after this year, so the race for his Southwest Florida judicial seat prompted two magistrates and three attorneys, at various times, to announce plans to run.

Yet now, Simpson is on the ballot for re-election for a second six-year term.

"It was a complete shock when he showed up on qualifying week and filed," said former Charlotte County Magistrate Lisa Spader Porter, adding that the legal community believed he was retiring. "No one expected it. Every other judge in this circuit had filed long before."

Porter, who had to step down from her $72,000 yearly magistrate's position on April 15 to run, filed her candidacy papers Feb. 15. She's now Simpson's only opponent on the ballot because others withdrew.

Naples attorney Ray Bass filed to run on March 29.

"It was my understanding that Simpson was going to retire due to health reasons," said Bass, who withdrew from the race in early April for family reasons.

Lee court records show that since July 1, Simpson hasn't had a hearing docket. If you want to schedule a hearing on the judicial calendaring system in Lee, you'll find six judges listed, but not Simpson.

Simpson, a well-respected and successful attorney, was elected in September 2006 and took the circuit bench in January 2007.

But in May 2007, the News-Press in Fort Myers reported Simpson admitted he was diagnosed with a disease similar to Parkinson's that made his "rapid-fire" voice difficult to understand, hampering defendants, attorneys and court reporters, who complained they weren't able to transcribe an accurate record of proceedings. The newspaper account said court reporters threatened to quit and Simpson agreed to take speech therapy.

Early that year, court officials gave Simpson a lapel microphone, according to Sheila Mann, a spokeswoman for the five-county judicial circuit that includes Collier and Lee. Voters in all five counties vote in all circuit judge races.

In July 2011, circuit Chief Judge Jay Rosman reassigned the caseload for Lee Circuit judges, giving Simpson a "transactional docket" of strictly paperwork that doesn't require him to preside over court hearings. Court officials said that means Simpson reviews cases, such as signing uncontested domestic violence, divorce and probate cases and appeals from county court. Other circuit judges handle the most serious criminal cases, civil suits, divorces, probate, juvenile court and similar cases.

"This is valuable work that he does in chambers and in so-doing provides more time for other judges to be in court," Rosman told the Daily News. "This is an accommodation that is mutually beneficial to the community, the judiciary and Judge Simpson."

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.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Mann said, the court system had to make accommodations so he could do work and contribute. If re-elected, she said, he will continue his office work, research and transactional docket "unless something changes."

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.

Repeated attempts by the Daily News to reach Simpson for comment about his decision to seek re-election weren't successful. His judicial assistant, Carol Beach, told the Daily News early last week that Simpson would call, but that didn't occur and then Beach didn't return repeated calls seeking an interview or statement from the judge.

Simpson's campaign treasurer, Gene Solomon, a Fort Myers accountant and his friend for 35 years, said he would ask Simpson to call the Daily News or provide a statement. Solomon said he was surprised Simpson decided to run.

"He comes running in and said he's going to try to retain his judgeship," Solomon said of Simpson coming to his office, adding he then agreed to be Simpson's treasurer.

Sharon Miller, an insurance agent in Southwest Florida, said she filed a Judicial Qualifications Commission complaint in December 2010 against Simpson, accusing him of colluding with opposing attorneys and ruling against her without giving her a hearing in her divorce. Her husband, Richard, died two days later, causing her to lose millions of dollars earned over their 35-year personal and business relationship, she said.

"When he decided my case, I could not understand a word that he said," Miller's letter to the JQC said of Simpson. "However, I was assured by my then-counsel that his inability to speak did not mean he was incompetent. I now question that conclusion."

Sharon Miller, an insurance agent in Southwest Florida, said she filed a Judicial Qualifications Commission complaint in December 2010 against Simpson, accusing him of colluding with opposing attorneys and ruling against her without giving her a hearing in her divorce.

In a phone interview last week, she said JQC officials sent her a letter to say they had handled the matter. Simpson then was removed from her case, she said, so she was surprised to hear he was still on the bench. She said she called JQC officials to complain last week, but was told they couldn't discuss Simpson because it was a "sealed file."

"He's still a judge?" she said. "No one can understand a word he says ..."

Despite questions about his health, several lawyers and court reporters praise Simpson, calling him brilliant and well-liked.

Fort Myers attorney Mike Chionopoulos, who has appeared before Simpson numerous times, said he has no trouble understanding the judge.

"Yes, I do have to pay closer attention and I do have to focus more, but if you take the time to be courteous, you can understand him," Chionopoulos said. "There's not a thing wrong with that man's mind. It's very sharp. He may have a deteriorating condition, but because of his disability, he tries harder.

"I think too many people are making too big of an issue about his condition," Fort Myers attorney Mike Chionopoulos said. "He's clearly fit to hold that position and does a great job."

"I think too many people are making too big of an issue about his condition," he added. "He's clearly fit to hold that position and does a great job."

Gail Lawson, manager of Fort Myers Court Reporting, agreed Simpson is difficult to understand, but said her company offered to be full-time court reporters for his courtroom. Nothing came of her verbal offer, she said.

"It's kind of like someone with a foreign accent,'' Lawson said. "You get used to it and learn."

Lawson, who has known Simpson for 30 years and considers him a friend, said Simpson sounds like anyone with Parkinson's disease, but she understands him.

"Everybody respects him — all the lawyers in town, everyone who works with him," she added. "He's very nice and he treats everybody with respect."

With Simpson on the ballot now, Southwest Florida voters will have an unusual opportunity to vote for a circuit judge. Rarely does anyone run against a sitting judge because the incumbent historically wins.

"Unless a judge is guilty of some sort of heinous misconduct, you just don't run against an incumbent," attorney Chionopoulos said.

Porter, who filed to run in February, said she's been working on her campaign since then and is better qualified than Simpson.

"Circuit judges are trial judges. That means hearing cases on the bench," she said.

It will be up to voters to decide on Aug. 14.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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