TAMPA, Fla. — A terminally ill Hillsborough County circuit court judge remained on the job, drawing a paycheck for years, even though he was no longer able to conduct hearings or issue rulings. The ABC Action News I-Team uncovered how the situation developed and why some say a resulting backlog in his courtroom led to justice being denied.
“He was a lawyer’s kind of judge. He would let the lawyers try their case,” said Hillsborough County Chief Judge Ronnie Ficarrotta, describing his friend and colleague Judge Carl Hinson.
Hinson’s portrait now hangs in the county’s ceremonial courtroom, following his death on December 3, 2021.
Those close to Hinson said he valiantly battled brain cancer for years. But some people who had cases assigned to his courtroom said they were never officially notified he was ill.
“I didn’t even know what he looked like”
“In my case, there were no orders from Judge Hinson whatsoever. I never had a single order issued by him,” said Angela Debose.
Debose, who has a law degree from the Stetson School of Law, filed pro se lawsuits seeking employment records and emails from her former employer, the University of South Florida.
“My cases just languished. There were motions filed that were pending for long periods of time,” Debose said.
She said she heard rumors Judge Hinson was incapacitated and hired private investigator Kim Caliendo, who investigated and determined Hinson was no longer hearing cases.
“I didn’t even know what he looked like. Is that crazy?” said Lesa Martino.
Martino said she faced frustration while trying to fight a foreclosure lawsuit after her father’s guardian sued her for slander and won a $160,000 judgment.
She said she learned Judge Hinson was terminally ill from social media.
“I actually found that out from somebody on Facebook who saw my case and they said did you know Judge Hinson is on medical leave with cancer? I was like… I didn’t even know that,” Martino said.
Chief Judge Ficarrotta recalled hearing about Hinson’s serious diagnosis shortly before Hinson was transferred from family court into the civil division.
“Right when he got assigned is when he got sick,” Ficarrotta said. “I believe it was 2019. I don’t have the exact date, but I believe it was probably right around 2019."
More than 1,600 cases were assigned, but Judge ruled in none
During the 23 months that Hinson served in the circuit civil division starting in January 2020, the state paid him $313,000.
About 16,000 cases are filed in Hillsborough County Civil Circuit Court each year.
But the I-Team was not able to find a single hearing he attended or an order he actually signed. According to records the I-Team obtained from the Hillsborough County Clerk of Courts, about 1,620 civil cases were assigned to Judge Hinson’s division before his death.
Those cases include contract disputes, construction defects, car crash injuries, medical malpractice, and other cases in which damage claims are more than $30,000.
Martino said she saw multiple judges in her case.
”There was a Judge Taylor, there was Judge Barton, there were all these senior judges showing up in the place,” Martino said.
“We used other judges on the floor to cover for him. Other judges would step up and hear his docket, then when it became clear he was going to be out for an extended period, we brought in senior judges,” Ficarrotta said.
Senior judges are retired judges allowed to fill in for judges on a part-time basis when they are on temporary leave, away at conferences, or trying to clear backlogs of cases.
The I-Team asked Ficarrotta if he considered appointing a permanent replacement in Hinson’s division when it became clear his illness was not getting better.
“I don’t think it ever gets to that. My goal with Carl was I wanted him to get better and come back to work. That is what I wanted. And I was a true believer that he would be able to do that, despite the serious diagnosis that he faced,” Ficarrotta said.
Orders issued, cases assigned after judge’s death
In one of the first cases assigned to Hinson after he was moved into the civil division, the docket showed 78 entries filed by attorneys over nearly two years, but no orders were issued until December 8, 2021 — five days after Hinson’s death.
Another order filed with the court 10 days after Hinson died appeared to bear his signature.
“There was just a human error, a mistake made and those auto-generated orders went out with judge Hinson’s signature,” Ficarrotta said.
On the Hillsborough County Court directory, Hinson’s page was still active in March 2022, more than three months after his death. It notified parties “there will be no in-person hearings until further notice.”
“I would have hoped by now it would have been updated,” Ficarrotta said.
“His name’s right there on the judiciary directory. He continued to be assigned cases even after his death,” Debose said.
Records show more than 30 cases were assigned to Hinson on or after December 3.
Debose said she tried to get action long before Hinson died.
“I contacted the chief judge and said if he lacks capacity to rule or to decide these cases, you’re required to involuntarily terminate or retire him. I need a new judge assigned to my cases,” Debose said.
She said she didn’t receive a response.
“What’s most important is the administration of justice”
Ficarrotta said he doesn’t believe any of the litigants with cases in his courtroom were short-changed in any way.
“I really don’t think so. The litigants really don’t get to choose who their judge is,” Ficarrotta said.
Dr. Terri Day, who is a professor and Associate Dean at Barry School of Law in Orlando, believes the situation should have been handled differently.
“As sympathetic as it is when a judge is ill, what’s most important is the administration of justice. And the caseload and the parties,” Day said.
“The code of judicial conduct requires that supervising judges, if they know that a judge is not capable of performing his or her duties, must take reasonable measures to remove the judge, to assign different judges to the cases,” she said.
Lesa Martino said she wishes that had happened in her case.
“I should have been assigned a permanent judge. Same judge at every hearing. It was very unfair. It was just chaos, really,” Martino said.
“We wanted him to come back to work. That was what our goal was,” Ficarrotta.
Records show Hinson retained his salary, benefits, and a supplemental life insurance policy that paid out three times his $162,000 salary upon death.
“He’s not my employee. He’s an elected constitutional officer. So yes, he remained on the payroll until his untimely passing,” Ficarrotta said.
“I couldn’t quarrel with being empathetic and somehow helping the family or helping the judge. But you don’t do it at the expense of litigants,” Debose said.
“The judge has to perform the duties. The reason he or she cannot does not matter,” Associate Dean Day said.
The county’s judicial nominating commission started the process of choosing a new judge to complete Judge Hinson’s term. The commission will submit recommendations to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will choose his replacement in the coming weeks.
If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email us at email@example.com.