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Measure could unseal complaints on judges

The bill is designed to push the agency that oversees judges to be more aggressive and accountable.

By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2002

The bill is designed to push the agency that oversees judges to be more aggressive and accountable.

TALLAHASSEE -- The state House passed a sweeping proposal Tuesday that could open up tens of thousands of secret complaints and investigations of wrongdoing against Florida judges made during the past 35 years.

The move, which also seeks to make every new complaint against a judge open to public scrutiny, is designed to prod the state agency that oversees judges to be more aggressive and accountable in its inquiries.

If the Senate agrees, voters will consider the measure as an amendment to the state Constitution in November. It would take effect July 2003.

Rep. Larry Crow, R-Palm Harbor, spearheaded the change after recent scandals in Tampa Bay area courthouses led him to believe that the Judicial Qualifications Commission isn't doing its job.

"I do, in fact, have a cynical view of this body," said Crow, chairman of the House Judicial Oversight Committee. "In my opinion, this system is broken and needs to be fixed."

The attempt to lift the JQC's veil of secrecy is a stark contrast to the record number of bills filed this session seeking exemptions to the state's open government laws.

The proposal (HB 1981 and SB 162), which faces strong opposition by the JQC and judges, prompted lively debate in the House before it passed, 79-33.

"The system is working," said Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee, a former commission member. "Are there problems? There may be. But this is not the approach to take."

Opponents say allowing the public to view complaints when no charges are filed could tar the reputations of judges with baseless allegations.

Under the Constitution, the complaints cannot be made public unless the JQC files charges. The result: thousands of complaints and investigative materials remain secret and the public has no way of determining whether the JQC has done its job.

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said he adamantly opposed the bill because it would open all complaints made to the commission since it was created in 1966, even from people who were told their complaints would be kept anonymous.

"Every single one was told all those things would be kept confidential," he said.

About 500 complaints are made to the commission each year. But only about a dozen result in charges. In such case, an accused judge is given a hearing and the JQC recommends discipline to the Florida Supreme Court.

The proposal would allow the public to see all cases after the commission determines whether it will press charges against a judge, regardless of whether charges are filed. That is similar to procedures for criminal complaints, in which all investigative records become public once prosecutors file or drop charges.

"What's wrong with public scrutiny?" said Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City. "Our deliberations are public. Why can't theirs be?"

Judges say their situation is different.

"We're easy to complain against," Pinellas County Judge Henry Andringa said. "In every case, 50 percent of the people want to complain about the judge's decision."

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge David Demers said making all complaints public would also have an unexpected consequence: it might force judges to recuse themselves from cases involving litigants who have filed complaints against them.

Currently, the complaints are not public, so the judges often do not know who filed them. Once they know, they may be ethically bound to step aside.

But Scott Tozian, the lawyer who represents Hillsborough Circuit Judge Cynthia Holloway in her ongoing battle with the commission, said the proposed law would create more accountability on the agency's part.

"I think any time you've got things being dealt with in the open, there's more accountability," he said. "I don't think it's fair to say if we open this whole thing up it's going to be open season on judges. I could be wrong."

-- Times staff writers William R. Levesque and Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.

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