Judge’s role in domestic abuse cases questioned

By TONY HOLT

February 04, 2012

BROOKSVILLE — He declined an interview request and his legal counsel didn’t return messages.

A couple active and past board members — including Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis — didn’t wish to comment.

As part of his job since being elected, Hernando County Judge Kurt Hitzemann presides over an abundance of domestic battery and assault cases. He also sits on the Board of Directors for the Dawn Center, a local shelter that serves domestic abuse victims.

A local news Internet site has published stories during the past couple weeks suggesting Hitzemann is in violation of Florida’s Judicial Code of Conduct by ruling on domestic cases while serving on the Dawn Center’s board. Some critics think it is a clear conflict of interest.

James Petruska, who was convicted by Hitzemann in March 2009 for violating a restraining order, said he sensed the judge was too inclined to find him guilty.

He questioned whether Hitzemann was capable of being impartial in any domestic case.

“He was cold and callous,” Petruska said of the judge.

State Attorney Brad King said he wasn’t aware of Hitzemann’s membership on the Dawn Center board until a reporter called him Friday and told him. He had no additional comment on the matter.

“He has been an extremely valuable member of our board,” said President Toby Gray. “In my view, it isn’t a conflict of interest at all … I don’t see it.”

Gray said the purpose of the board is to ensure the agency’s financial survival. It doesn’t involve being intimately involved with the operation of the Dawn Center or being in contact with the residents.

“We have no interaction at all with the victims,” Gray said. “That’s certainly not our role.”

Complaints against judges are made through the Judicial Qualifications Committee. After the committee investigates and determines there is legitimacy to the allegations, a Notice of Formal Charges is filed.

The judge gets an opportunity to respond to the charges before the committee decides whether to present the matter to the Florida Supreme Court.

No formal charges have ever been filed against Hitzemann, said a committee spokeswoman.

All complaints remain confidential until they become formal charges.

There are rules and laws in place that prohibit judges from taking part in advocacy groups or organizations that could call into question their capacity for impartiality.

Judges, for instance, may not serve on the board of Mothers Against Drunk Driving because it could affect how they preside over DUI cases.

“I definitely think he belongs there. He’s been an asset to us,” said Liz Jennings, an Oak Hill Hospital nurse who is vice president of the Dawn Center Board of Directors. “He’s not at the shelter. He’s not with the women there.”

Source: Hernando Today