(Originally published in Tampa Bay Life in 1989)
By Bob Andelman
“If I had any respect left for Elizabeth Kovachevich, that disappeared when she locked me up. She had a good public image, but I discovered firsthand that she was willing and able to abuse her power … The hanging judge had a rope for every occasion.” — Denny McLain from his book, Strikeout
CLEARLY, Denny McLain thought the worst, wrote book while in jail, then got outy the last pitcher to win 31 games in major league baseball, was not a great fan of Elizabeth Kovachevich, a United States district court judge in Tampa. Few would be fond of the person who sentences them to 23 years in federal prison. McLain is more than a little direct in his criticism of Her Honor in his 1988 book, Strikeout. Remarking on her work in his trial on racketeering, conspiracy, extortion and describe her drug dealing charges, McLain uses the following descriptions: “sham,” “botched,” “farce,” “she went nuts,” “ringmaster of the circus,” and “outrageous.”
That was before McLain decided to acknowledge he was guilty of racketeering and possession of cocaine with intent to sell. It was written while McLain was serving 29 months behind bars, before the “hanging judge” commuted his sentence and put him on probation.
McLain has a new message, suggested to him by Judge Kovachevich: don’t believe everything you read in his book. He may have been hasty in his character attacks against Tampa’s most controversial jurist.
“I always had mixed emotions at what had gone on during the trial,” says the ex-Cy Young Award winner by telephone from Fort Wayne, Ind. “But she proved to me she had the ability to be fair. She showed us some insight that I didn’t know existed. She didn’t have any bitterness. She gave me back my life, my family. She turned out to be quite a lady. I can’t get over it.”
During 1988, the name Kovachevich was synonymous with controversy.
Besides the McLain case, the single, 52-year-old has been strongly identified with two landmark AIDS rulings. She was responsible for the settlement reached in the complaint of Arcadia’s Ray brothers — Ricky, Robert and Randy — who sued the DeSoto County School Board when they were refused admittance to public schools because they had contracted AIDS.
And arguments in the case of Eliana Martinez — a mentally handicapped 7-year-old girl who is in the advanced stages of the AIDS virus — may outlast the Tampa child whose mother has been fighting to find her a place in public school. Kovachevich caused a maelstrom when she ruled that Eliana could only attend school if she was kept in a glass isolation booth. The idea was inspired by a 1976 made-for-television movie starring John Travolta, “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.” Neither the Hillsborough County School Board, Eliana’s mother, Rosa, nor a federal appeals court found the ruling acceptable.
Those were just the most recent cases that put Kovachevich’s name in the spotlight as prominently as the defendants’ before her. Here are a few others:
* In 1987, Kovachevich ruled that a menorah in front of Tampa’s City Hall — celebrating the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah — violated constitutional safeguards separating church and state; for the city to light candles would suggest Tampa was endorsing one holiday over another. The ceremony was canceled over the protests of the Jewish community, which is awaiting a ruling from a higher court on the issue. (Kovachevich is a practicing Roman Catholic; Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, who lit the first candle in 1986, is Jewish.)
* As an adjunct to the McLain case, Kovachevich removed his attorney, Arnold D. Levine, for evidence tampering and initiated a formal rebuke of Levine by a three-member panel of federal judges.
* When Clarence Ferguson, an employee of the National Marine Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, was fired for absenteeism due to alcoholism — which the federal government recognizes as a disease — Kovachevich set off a national dialogue with her ruling. She said that as a federal employee with a disease, Ferguson should be considered a handicapped worker and was protected from being fired without first being helped. She wrote that Ferguson’s supervisors had a responsibility to help him before they fired him.
* Arthur Jones, multimillionaire inventor of Nautilus exercise equipment, sued ABC-TV’s news program 20/20 for $4 billion in 1988 for defamation of character, reportedly the largest libel suit ever brought against a news organization. Kovachevich ruled against Jones.
Elizabeth Kovachevich never dreamed of becoming a judge.
After a successful private law practice in St. Petersburg and a term with the Florida Board of Regents — during which she gained notoriety for calling coed dormitories “taxpayers’ whorehouses” — friends started whispering the words “Judge Kovachevich” in her ear.
“I thought, well, they feel I have something to offer,” she recalls. “I was the first woman who ran for circuit judge (in Pinellas County). It wasn’t until after I got into the position that I realized I was doing what I was meant to do.”
Her first campaign sought to get Kovachevich elected and teach the public how to pronounce her last name (Ko-VATCH-uh-vitch). Remembering the old Burma Shave signs that she once saw while driving across America on Highway 66, Kovachevich found the method worked for selling candidates as well as shave cream.
“We put a KO on one sign. Then 50 feet down the road we put the VACH, then the E and the last sign would be VICH. And then we would run another set of them. KO-VACH-E-VICH, KO-VACH-E-VICH. It was like a choo-choo train. All the way up Fourth Street (in St. Petersburg), you could see the signs.”
Three Republican presidents have had a hand in guiding Kovachevich’s career. Richard Nixon appointed her to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships in 1973. Gerald Ford first nominated her to be a U.S. District Judge in 1976, but it took until 1982 for Ronald Reagan — via former U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins’ recommendation — to finally appoint Kovachevich to a lifetime job wearing judicial robes in the Middle District of Florida. She spent two years in Orlando and then transferred to Tampa.
Republican Congressman Bill Young has been a fan of Kovachevich’s since she clerked for him back in 1960 when he was a state senator in 1960.
“She is very intense and determined to do what’s right,” according to Young. Kovachevich, he goes on, is “rather inflexible, but determined to do what in her heart she considers is the right thing.”
Bob Merkle, former U.S. attorney and Republican senatorial candidate, also comes across as being in Kovachevich’s corner. It was Merkle, incidentally, who brought the original charges against Denny McLain.
“She’s very bright, very personable,” he says. “While I haven’t agreed with everything she’s done, all in all I think she’s going to be a great judge. She’s everything you look for: she’s not distant or arrogant.”
Tampa still hasn’t made up its mind about the fast-talking, no-nonsense redhead who daily admonishes slow-moving, jive-talking lawyers to move it or lose it.
“In show business,” she says with a laugh, “they would say Tampa is a tough ticket.”
When the Hillsborough County Bar Association asked its members to rate local judges, Kovachevich received the most negative response of the city’s nine federal judges. Hillsborough’s 56 judges, her rating was fifth from the bottom.
Dallas Albritton, president of the Bar in 1987 when the results were released, cautions against interpreting the results as negative.
“Only a small portion of lawyers (500 out of a possible 2,000) chose to respond. I would hope they were not just lawyers with an axe to grind,” he says. From his own experience, Albritton adds, “I think she’s a crackerjack judge. She’s no-nonsense; she recognizes hot air when she hears it. I like to appear in her court. She’s a lively judge.”
Not everyone is taken with Kovachevich.
“I think she did a terrible job,” says a man who appeared before the judge and prefers to remain anonymous while his case is appealed to a higher court. “I was told by my lawyer that the last judge you want is her.”
Two AIDS cases presented before Kovachevich in 1988 drew nationwide attention to Courtroom E in downtown Tampa’s federal courthouse.
“She was faced with a potential media circus,” says Judy Kavanaugh, attorney for the Ray brothers. “Some judges are very sensitive to the press and very hostile. But she handles it real well. She really tried to be fair. I she was concerned about the Ray family. She was weighing that with her concern for the public interest.”
In cases such as the Rays’ and Eliana Martinez’s, judges like Kovachevich are faced with setting new precedents or giving new interpretations to established decisions. With respect to her consideration and rulings in AIDS cases, Kovachevich has applied 40-year-old tuberculosis and polio cases and a one-year-old New York AIDS case (Arline v. Long Island). Her general conclusion: discrimination against AIDS victims is illegal and doctors — not judges — should make medical decisions when someone is too ill to interact normally with society.
“(AIDS) is a communicable disease,” says the judge. “Tuberculosis was and is a communicable disease. The Ray order harkened back to the order on polio. Polio, when I was a child, terrified people, with as strong an emphasis on the word terror as you can make. You could see pictures of adults in these iron tombs, iron lungs. Until the vaccine was discovered, there was no hope for people.
“When I was a child back in Illinois, communicable diseases were dealt with on a quarantine basis. If you had chicken pox, measles, whatever — you were out of school. You were home. And everybody in that home was isolated. The notice was on the door and that was it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Public health dictated it. Here in Tampa, in the not-so-distant past she was concerned about the Ray family. She was weighing that with her concern for the public interest.”
“When I was a child back in Illinois, communicable diseases were dealt with on a quarantine basis. If you had chicken pox, measles, whatever — you were out of school. You were home. And everybody in that home was isolated. The notice was on the door and that was it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Public health dictated it. Here in Tampa, in the not-so-distant past if you had tuberculosis in a communicable state, they picked you up and took you to the tuberculosis hospital.”
Kovachevich sought to establish precedent in the Ray case that would cause people who might discriminate or seek to exclude AIDS victims from school or the workplace to think twice. Kavanaugh believes the judge achieved her objective.
“I had at least seven more school exclusion cases (pending),” says the lawyer. “After the Ray decision I sent letters and said, ‘Here’s the Ray decision — let the kids back in school.’ The Rays also hoped it would have a ripple effect and it has. Decisions like the Ray decision send a message.”
In the Eliana Martinez case — which Kavanaugh was not involved — Kovachevich agreed the child should be allowed in public school, as in the Ray case, but only in a plastic isolation booth, which harkened back to the days of quarantine and iron lungs. Kavanaugh feels the judge’s ruling was only partially consistent with the Ray case.
“I think the legal standard that the judge enunciated is consistent,” says Kavanaugh. “I do not necessarily agree with the approach taken. I think further evidence would be required to put that child in a glass booth. I do not think Eliana Martinez needs to be in a glass booth.”
The law requires that anyone accused of a criminal if you had tuberculosis in a communicable state, they picked you up and took you to the tuberculosis hospital.”
The law requires that anyone accused of a criminal offense has a right to his or her day in court within 70 days of arrest. That’s a tall order for a judiciary that is already overworked and underpaid. But in Judge Kovachevich’s court, if it’s fast justice you need, it’s fast justice you’ll get.
“All she cared about was her precious docket and how many hours we were behind schedule,” wrote Denny McLain in his book, wherein he describes how during his months-long trial, Kovachevich extended the court’s typical day from seven hours to 9-1/2 hours, exhausting all parties involved. “To hell with my rights … the woman was obsessed with the clock.”
“I’ve heard she really pushes cases along, and that antagonizes lawyers who drag their feet,” says Bruce Jacob, dean of Stetson University’s College of Law and a one-time fellow student of the judge’s. “I admire her for trying to move cases along.”
“In our case, she did that,” confirms attorney Judy Kavanaugh, noting that the Ray case was scheduled for February but the judge abruptly pushed it up to October. “At the time, it was painful. But in our case, it made us get our act together.”
“She manages her time well,” says St. Petersburg attorney Tony Battaglia. “Judges who are very conservative have a great concern about the docket because everyone has a right to their day in court.”
Kovachevich brags about her ability to do three things at once while sitting in judgment on the federal bench. While hearing testimony in January at the drug trafficking case of Pedro Gomez, she could be seen reading, writing and occasionally making conversation or exchanging notes with one of her court clerks. Remarkably, she never skipped a beat through a parade of witnesses, objections or even a tired looking jury.
“I’ve been criticized by some people that did not realize I am capable of reading and doing two and three things at once and paying full attention to each one of them,” she says. “When I’m up on the bench and in a long trial, there is no way that paperwork can get out of this office without having it funneled in and out (of the courtroom). … It’s very fatiguing to do this. I’m not going to tell you that coming home at the end of the day you are not tired. Mentally, you are whipped! But if I only did one thing at a time, the two other things wouldn’t get done. And you multiply that in trials.”
And heaven help the attorney who doesn’t wrap up a case at precisely 4 p.m. Along about 3:55 in the Gomez trial, Kovachevich began staring at the clock on the wall as the lawyers examined, cross-examined, redirected and re-redirected.
“Any re-redirect?” she asked the prosecution.
“Just one question, your honor.”
“I knew there would be.”
And moments later, to the defense: “Any re-recross?”
“Just a moment, your honor.” It was five minutes after 4 and Kovachevich’s eyes were rolling in frustration. When the questioning was completed, the jury was led out. Before adjourning, the judge didn’t ask, she told the attorneys they had better be ready to wrap it up tomorrow. The underlying message: speed it up, fellas.
Numbers mean a lot to Kovachevich and she has quite a few of them committed to memory. To wit: She has more than 500 civil and 200 criminal cases pending at any given time. When she came to Tampa, her docket included cases as old as 16 years, many of which have only recently been concluded. She has done her part to raise the middle district’s case completion rate from 55th out of 94 in the nation to 2nd. The middle district judges are first in case completions in the 11th Circuit (Florida, Georgia and Alabama).
“I take a great deal of pride in that,” she says. “We provided resolutions for people. That’s what we’re there to do. We could sit and cogitate about it indefinitely and maybe we’d get through with one case in an elongated period of time. But what about all these other people waiting for our attention?
“I believe that Chief Justice (William) Rehnquist said it very well. He said that in our zeal for perfection we take so long to contemplate cases that other people are not getting any justice at all, just or unjust.
“We are getting our work out, getting our decisions out,” she concludes. “If people are not satisfied and they have a basis for appeal, fine. At least we’ve given them an answer.”
“It is never a pleasure to sentence anyone. It is a duty to perform.” — Judge Kovachevich, before sentencing Bentley A.McFarlane to 15 years in prison on drug charges
“She is singularly one of the most spectacular women I know,” says Roy Speer, a former Stetson University law school classmate of Kovachevich’s and now chairman of the board at the Home Shopping Network. He knows the federal judge about as well as anyone could.
As a student in the late 1950s, Speer used to go to school during the day and pay his way by working nights. Because Roy and Elizabeth were a bit of an item in those days, he was a regular at the Kovachevich dinner table in St. Petersburg.
“Before I went to work,” recalls Speer, “her mother used to feed me. I became like a dog — you feed ’em, they become very close.”
Speer was attracted to the future federal judge by her sense of humor, her high spirits and her fancy footwork.
“She was a fabulous dancer … one of the best,” he says. “She’s just a lot of fun to be around.”
Kovachevich was the only woman in her 1961 graduating class. There were at least two other future judges, however: Circuit Court Judges Fred Bryson and Vincent Giglio. Another Stetson alumnus of the period: State Attorney James T. Russell.
Although the judge prefers not to talk about her parents, they gently smile and look over her shoulder in two sets of photos behind her desk. Speer describes her mother as a simple person, “a great cook (with) a great sense of humor.” She must have made a good match for Kovachevich’s father, a retired postman who knew everyone in town and whom Speer affectionately calls “a clown … Very gregarious, like Elizabeth.”
Her parents’ serious illness in recent years has caused the judge to put aside her social life. It is one of the reasons she has never married, according to friends.
“She probably has one of the greatest devotions to her parents of any person I’ve ever known,” says Speer. “Elizabeth is an only child. She was always very close to her mother and father. It’s a very close-knit family. She has sacrificed her life to them.”
Hobbies are few and far between, with the little time left after working all week and caring for her parents. Kovachevich takes briefs and precedents home every weekend. She tries to find time to hit a tennis ball or run, however; photos and trophies in her conference room attest to the judge’s athletic ability.
Elizabeth Kovachevich isn’t convinced that the controversy that always seems to swirl around her has anything to do with her being a woman.
“I don’t know if it’s having a woman on the bench,” she says. “Having this woman on the bench, I would think that’s a more obvious observation.
“When I was an attorney,” remembers Kovachevich, “good friends of mine would say, ‘I really like the way you practice law.’ And I’d say, ‘Why is that?’ And they’d say to me — and mean it as a compliment — ‘Because you think like a man.'”
“It’s still a boys’ club,” says Judy Kavanaugh, “but it is changing. Judge Kovachevich has had many controversial cases. She’s a tough law ‘n order judge. She’s known for that.”
Kovachevich thinks that women have a long way to go in the legal profession before men naturally treat them as equals.
“It takes more time,” she says, “for a woman to ‘prove herself’ to whoever is looking, than perhaps for a man and that is just the way of the world. When I became the first woman judge in Pinellas County, the bar did not endorse me for the position. I had lawyers come to me and say, ‘You know they’re just waiting out there on the streets to see what you’re going to do.’ And I was bemused by that. I could almost look out the office window and see everyone lined up on the street saying, ‘I wonder what she’s going to do next?'”
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Copyright 2017 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman