Not long after moving here in February 1987 and starting work at the Chronicle, I began seeing stories and hearing of a local judge who seemed a little eccentric.
He threw a guy in jail for uttering “bull” during a cop’s testimony during his DUI trial. He ordered someone to kill his pet snakes that bit a friend. The judge (not the guy pictured here) directed another to dismantle his custom pickup truck to resolve a careless driving case.
Those are three that come to mind. There are dozens, at least, of stories involving this judge and his zany antics.
I’m referring to the late Gary Graham, a name that always causes a reaction to anyone who’s lived in these parts since the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.
Graham was county judge, meaning he dealt with the sort of low-level criminals whose names normally wouldn’t grace the front pages of daily newspapers. Drunk drivers, shoplifters, bar fight assaults, that sort of thing.
But Graham had not come into office in a normal sort of way.
Graham, a local lawyer, had challenged then-County Judge Leonard Damron in the 1984 election and lost. A year later, Graham ratted Damron out (I honestly do not know the details, this part happened prior to my arrival) before the Judicial Qualifications Commission, and the state Supreme Court tossed him from the bench.
The governor appointed Larry Haag to replace Damron, and Haag ran for the job in 1986, losing to Graham. Haag would go on to have a very successful career as Citrus County attorney and later Inverness city attorney.
Caught up? Graham was elected to office in 1986. Wasn’t long before the wheels fell off and it pretty much stayed that way for six years.
The local reporters loved this guy. We had — no kidding — four daily newspapers serving Citrus County in those days. You just never know in this news biz. Gary Graham captured the public’s attention.
One of the local cable companies started airing county court and it was an instant hit. Graham was must-see TV.
The absurd attracted absurd. An attorney who ran unsuccessfully against Graham in the 1990 election invented a Monopoly-type game board called “Cut the Bull!” that ridiculed the incumbent’s more imaginable decisions. (I have a "Cut the Bull!" game. It’s a collector’s item for anyone who collects totally useless junk.)
Well, a judge’s fun can only go so long before people’s noses start getting out of joint, and that’s exactly what happened. Someone else ratted Graham out (wasn’t hard to do, his was a known name in the judiciary), and here we were with another judge before the JQC.
Graham fought to the end. I attended his Supreme Court hearing in Tallahassee, and he walked in feeling confident and left the same way. A few months later, he was out.
So it was 1992, and we were without a county judge once again. It was getting embarrassing. Wasn’t there someone who could be a county judge and make it, like, normal?
Enter Mark Yerman.
Yerman was appointed in 1993 to replace Graham and something amazing happened: absolutely nothing. County court took on a, how shall I say, dull orderly approach. Not saying Yerman is dull, because he definitely is not.
But he wasn’t newsworthy. Not in the Gary Graham sense. Not in any sense that I recall.
The following year, voters eager for some sense of calm swept Yerman into office, and he has never faced a serious challenge since.
I mention all this because Yerman is retiring and it’s an open seat for the first time in several decades. Two attorneys, Edward Spaight and Lisa Yeager, are on the primary ballot (qualifying for judicial races already took place).
This isn’t like a circuit court judge, where Citrus is one of five counties and our favorite rarely seems to win. County judge is elected only by Citrus voters.
I’ll be getting into this a little more as the campaign season moves along, but there’s a huge lesson for us from years gone by.
Mark Yerman returned public trust to the county court system, and he did it in a very quiet, unassuming way. It’s county court. It shouldn’t be big news.
Let’s hope whoever follows him feels the same way.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.