A bill currently awaiting signature from Gov. Rick Scott aims to restrict access for minors seeking a judicial bypass for the state’s mandatory parental notification for abortion law. Florida’s House Bill 1247 was just one of a crop of controversial measures introduced during the 2011 session that aimed to limit abortion rights in Florida. And while the bill’s legal ramifications have been the primary focus of the controversy– the bill’s close ties to a powerful couple here in Florida might pose ethical questions, as well.
The bill’s House sponsor, state Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, is not only an anti-abortion rights advocate, she’s also the wife of Circuit Court Judge John Stargel.
Judge Stargel is among a number of judges to whom young women can appeal in order to get a waiver for a parental notification needed to obtain an abortion. In short, Stargel’s wife sponsored legislation this year that directly affects how he does his day-to-day work.
Like his wife, Judge Stargel once dabbled in politics, serving as state Representative in Florida for four years starting in 2002.
During his time as a representative, Judge Stargel took on the issue of judicial bypasses for minors seeking an abortion very publicly.
According to a 2006 Life News article, Stargel has long been interested in giving judges less latitude in granting parental-notification waivers, as well as more time in granting them.
From the article:
Rep. John Stargel, a Lakeland Republican says the “girl’s best interest” standard the law uses is too vague and is allowing judges to grant any abortion requests…
“It leaves it wide open for the judge to make the determination that any negative consequence to the minor eliminates the parents’ right to know under the Florida Constitution,” Stargel said.
Stargel will propose legislation that will give judges more time to thoroughly review each case — moving it from 48 hours to seven days. He also wants to make sure the provision applies only to girls who face personal harm from telling their parents.
His wife’s bill addresses the very issues that Judge Stargel attempted to confront during his time as a legislator. HB 1247, which is set to become law, would give judges more time to rule on a petition. Some have even argued that the delays could extend the process up to three weeks.
The new law would also require judges to “ask questions of the applicant that determine if she ‘has the ability to assess both the immediate and long-range consequences of [her] choices.’”
A separate article in Life News, also from 2006, pointed out that Judge Stargel disliked an earlier version of the parental notification law, which gave young women options when seeking a judge for a petition.
According to the article, Stargel introduced a measure that would tighten up judicial bypass requirements, effectively halting the practice of “judge-shopping,” or going to other parts of the state in an effort to get a case heard by a pro-abortion-rights judge.
Rep. Kelli Stargel’s bill addresses this issue, too. If the law passes, young women will be restricted to only the district court in which they reside, a provision that legislators on both sides of the aisle and abortion-rights advocates see as an infringement on a woman’s privacy.
The ethics of the connection between Rep. Stargel and her husband’s job as a judge are not entirely clear.
According to Bob Jarvis, a legal ethics professor at Nova Southeastern University’s law school, the only way that any impropriety on Judge Stargel’s behalf could be addressed is if a lawyer helping a young girl seeking judicial bypass claims this connection as “a clear bias” and fights for Stargel to recuse himself.
Says Jarvis, “It’s a long shot, though.”
Jarvis explains that to determine impropriety in the judicial system, the bias would have to be proven, which is not always an easy feat.
“What a lawyer would have to answer is, ‘Does this judge have a closed mind? Is there any evidence available of this?’”
While a clear bias as a judge might be hard to prove, Judge Stargel did embroil himself in abortion rights issues as a legislator.
In 2005, he supported a decision made by Florida’s Department of Children and Families to block a 13-year-old girl living in shelters from receiving an abortion.
But as a judge, Stargel is no longer able to voice his opinions publicly.
Opinions of Stargel’s performance as a judge vary widely across the board. In judge’s surveys, remarks have ranged from “works hard, studies the issues, gives everyone a fair chance,” to “confidence exceeds his competence” and even “smug, pompous, makes law from the bench, disregards established law.”
Kelli Stargel, however, remains outspoken about her views on abortion as a legislator.
A story in the Lakeland Ledger described how she and Judge Stargel dealt with an unplanned pregnancy early on in their relationship. Kelli was 17 years old when she got pregnant. She and John decided to keep the baby and marry. The couple now has four children.
“God created that baby,” she told The Ledger. “We had some tough times. We had two kids and John was in law school, I look back and wonder how we did it sometimes. But we did it.”
The article also notes that Stargel formerly worked at a crisis pregnancy center. In Florida, these state-funded clinics that discourage women from having abortions have been found to distribute misinformation about abortions.
While it is likely that Florida’s governor will sign H.B. 1247 into law, the ACLU of Florida has already begun looking into whether or not it will challenge the legislation. Other groups, such as the Florida Association of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, have also expressed opposition to the law.