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Judge Downey given psychological evaluation

The chief judge says steps were taken to ensure embattled Judge Brandt Downey's fitness.

Published December 22, 2005

LARGO - Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge David A. Demers on Wednesday released documents that show steps were taken to ensure embattled Judge Brandt Downey was fit to continue serving on the bench after he was accused of accessing pornography on his chambers computer.

The documents show Downey agreed to a psychological evaluation to see if he was addicted to pornography after sexually explicit photos were found on his computer this spring.

The psychologist determined Downey was not addicted to pornography, but that he looked at the images because of family and marital problems.

However, in a letter to Demers, the psychologist warned that any cases with similarities to Downey's situation could affect the judge's ability to be objective.

After taking a nearly two-week leave of absence in April, Downey returned to the criminal bench, where any number of sex cases appeared before him. He was moved to civil court in July.

Demers released the documents Wednesday in response to questions from the press about Downey's fitness for the bench, as well as Demers' handling of the situation.

The documents show Demers "has acted with the best interest of the people served by the Sixth Judicial Circuit in mind," according to a letter from Demers' spokesman Ron Stuart.

The revelations came a day after the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission charged Downey with habitually viewing pornography, harassing two female attorneys and concealing information about a juror sleeping during a murder trial.

The allegations could cost Downey his judgeship.

Downey remains in his position in civil court, though the JQC could decide to ask the Florida Supreme Court to suspend him while his case is pending, said Thomas MacDonald, a JQC attorney. MacDonald said that usually happens in cases in which judges are charged with the most serious wrongdoing. Asked if Downey's charges could rise to that level, MacDonald said, "It might."

Despite the steps taken by Demers this spring, some judges on the circuit don't agree with the way the chief judge handled Downey's situation.

Of particular concern is JQC's allegation that Downey trolled pornographic Web sites over a three-year period beginning in 2002. Downey's visits to Web sites were so frequent that his computer developed viruses that threatened the entire courthouse computer system.

Computer technicians visited Downey's chambers to fix the problems and at least twice saw pornographic photos on his monitor. It's unclear when those visits were made.

Some judges say Demers should have known about Downey's longtime computer habits before this spring.

"I presume he (Demers) would have had to have known," said Circuit Judge Doug Baird, who sits on a criminal bench a few doors down from Downey's former courtroom. "I can't imagine that when this came to the attention of the tech people that it would not have gotten to him. And if it didn't, then someone messed up badly in the administration. But I suspect he was aware of it.

"It would seem to be an awful long time for something to go on that should have been addressed," he added.

Said Judge Ray E. Ulmer Jr., a former chief judge, "I would think it should have been nipped in the bud."

Demers declined to comment through his spokesman Stuart, saying judicial canons prohibit him from speaking about the case. Demers has said that his ability to oversee other judges, who are independently elected constitutional officers, is limited.

Demers also endured judicial criticism a few years ago when Judge Charles Cope became the subject of a JQC investigation concerning his arrest for public drunkenness at a California judicial conference. Some judges said Demers didn't act with enough speed and public openness when dealing with Cope, who eventually resigned.

The same criticisms have surfaced in regard to Downey's situation. Some judges feel Demers has protected Downey's reputation with too much vigor.

Baird said he didn't want to second-guess Demers but added, "It sheds a bad light on everyone because the chief judge is supposed to be the person who represents all of us and not just the judge who has problems."

Unless a settlement is reached, Downey will defend himself at a hearing before a six-person JQC panel. It can take months or more for a hearing to be set. Downey has announced he will retire in 2007.

Downey could not be reached for comment.

The documents released Wednesday also show prosecutors reviewed the information about Downey, but determined he committed no crimes.

When Downey returned to the bench after his leave, his Internet access was limited for six months, and he was required to report to Demers every two weeks about his performance.

The document also indicates Downey reported himself to the JQC.

Though some judges contacted by the St. Petersburg Times did not want to speak about Downey publicly, all said they were saddened by the situation.

"This is a sad day, and these types of allegations reflect poorly on the many hard-working, dedicated public servants that we have in our circuit," said Judge Thomas McGrady. "And it's disappointing."

[Last modified December 22, 2005, 01:08:06]

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