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NAPLES — It's a four-year battle that began simmering even before the elections, when an east coast law firm paid for ads that helped unseat Collier's longest running county judge.
Now, The Ticket Clinic is continuing its fight against another incumbent Collier County judge who held his seat, Judge Mike Carr, asking a circuit judge to preclude Carr from hearing cases handled by Ticket Clinic lawyers.
Early this year, Carr had predicted that a move by the Ticket Clinic lawyer who was running for his seat was another "calculated move" to force him to step down from hearing their lawyers' cases.
He told the Daily News that Collier judges "refuse to roll over."
"My only concern is to be fair," Carr said this past week.
In the months before the elections and for several days after, Carr was granting the motions that he step down. He's no longer doing so.
"Now, all of a sudden he's stopped, even though no facts have changed," Ticket Clinic owner Ted Hollander said of Carr refusing to disqualify himself from their cases.
Collier County judges and The Ticket Clinic, a Fort Lauderdale law firm that defends drivers in traffic cases, have been at odds since 2008, when Hollander gathered statistics to show Collier judges suspended licenses in speeding cases more than judges elsewhere.
The law firm battled each case and appealed those they lost. In 2011, a panel of circuit judges overruled many of the license suspensions. The appeal panel asked county judges to provide more justification when suspending licenses. Later that year, Carr reheard one of the cases and again suspended the license, detailing why.
Collier judges contend the east coast lawyers are accustomed to busy, overburdened and lax courtrooms and judges who give them what they want, something they'd hoped for in Collier. But their ads and guarantees — "Don't Pay that Ticket! Money back guarantee. No points, no school no court" — failed here, so the Ticket Clinic went to war.
The battle headed into this year's elections, when a Ticket Clinic lawyer, Stephen P. Smith, ran against Carr but lost in August. Hollander contributed $32,000 to Florida Judicial Watch, an Electioneering Communications Organization that targeted Carr with ads and videos that attacked his handling of traffic cases.
The group spent $31,000 on a mailer promoting Smith and produced one-minute videos it posted on YouTube that tried to show Carr wasn't fit to be a judge. But the fine print at the end of the videos noted the defendant was a paid actor, although the information was based on "true events and actual cases."
Florida Judicial Watch also produced a 30-second video pointing out that Collier Judge Eugene Turner, who then was running against an east coast lawyer supported by Hollander and Ticket Clinic founder Mark Gold, was in the state's DROP program. The program allows some public employees to briefly retire and then return to work, collecting a salary and retirement benefits.
Calling that "double dipping," the ad contended Turner was "the wrong choice for Collier County." The east coast lawyer, Samuel Lopez, lost the primary race to Turner and former Collier Magistrate Jim McGarity. But a close race required a runoff in November's election, when McGarity unseated Turner, ending his nearly 30 years on the bench.
This past week, Turner, who also had been stepping down from hearing Ticket Clinic cases, heard about a dozen of them and adjudicated each guilty, fining the accused $300-$350 in each case. When Bill Moffatt, the Ticket Clinic lawyer, asked for driving school for one person, Turner granted it — but also adjudicated the driver guilty, an unusual move.
"Several of them had no prior records at all," Moffatt said, adding that he objected several times. "He would stare at me and wouldn't say a word."
Moffatt has cases before Turner this coming week, but got his clients to sign up for driving school to avoid having Turner hear them. Ticket Clinic lawyers know their battles against Turner are nearly over: McGarity takes the bench in January. So they're focusing on Carr.
"The case law is clear. He should not be hearing our cases," Hollander said of appeal courts ruling that judges shouldn't hear cases involving associates of election opponents.
This month, Moffatt filed a motion to disqualify Carr from presiding over the trial of Mabel Gonzalez, 40, of Miami, who was ticketed for speeding on I-75. It was one of several he filed.
"Judge Carr has such negative feelings about the undersigned and his law firm that any client of the undersigned is jeopardized in that their right to a fair and impartial judge is compromised," the motion said, noting that Carr's actions would create a "well-founded fear" that defendants wouldn't get a fair hearing.
Carr denied the request, saying it wasn't filed in a timely manner.
Moffatt filed an amended motion detailing that his knowledge that Carr would preside over Gonzalez's Nov. 15 trial came on Nov. 5, within a 10-day deadline to file a motion to disqualify.
Moffatt said he heard nothing from Carr, so on the day of the trial, he filed a petition for an emergency writ of prohibition in Collier Circuit Court, asking a circuit judge to restrain Carr from hearing Gonzalez's trial.
"Because it cost $468 to file the writ, we couldn't afford to file it on the rest of them," Moffatt said of his firm's pending cases.
On Nov. 15, Circuit Judge Fred Hardt signed an "order to show cause," asking the State Attorney's Office to file a response to Moffatt's petition within 15 days, telling him why he shouldn't disqualify Carr.
The order halted Gonzalez's case and the State Attorney's Office is expected to respond this coming week. The judge initially denied Moffatt's attempts to continue 15 other cases, but then granted that motion after Moffatt said The Ticket Clinic was considering filing writs of prohibition in those cases.
"If I'm told I shouldn't hear this case, I won't handle any of their cases," Carr said of The Ticket Clinic's cadre of lawyers. "I'll do whatever is right. I just want to be fair."