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Misbehaving judge can serve six final months

The state's high court backs away from a threat to order Brandt Downey's immediate suspension.

Published July 1, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Supreme Court on Friday approved an agreement that will allow embattled Pinellas Circuit Judge Brandt Downey to retire at the end of the year.

The court's seven justices unanimously approved a recommendation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission in which Downey agreed to receive a public reprimand from the court, to write a letter of apology and to never again seek a judicial post.

The court made its decision a day after several justices grilled Downey and a JQC lawyer about the agreement, some of them appearing frustrated that it didn't include an immediate suspension from the bench.

Had the court rejected the agreement and asked for an immediate suspension, Downey could have withdrawn from the agreement, potentially prompting a trial that could have taken much longer than the six months Downey still has to serve before he retires.

"It strikes me that that is a very appropriate agreement, just because of the slowness of the judicial process," said Clark Furlow, an assistant professor at Stetson College of Law. "It would save time and money and essentially accomplish the same result."

The justices told Downey to appear before the court Sept. 22 for his public reprimand.

Downey, who been a county or circuit judge since 1984, will earn retirement pay of up to $99,924 a year, though he can receive less if he wants benefits paid to his wife after his death.

Downey would have been eligible for that retirement benefit whether or not he was suspended before Dec. 31, according to the state's Division of Retirement. The only way a judge could lose that money is to be convicted of a crime involving abuse of the position or a conviction by the Senate of an impeachable offense - neither of which applies to Downey's case.

Downey did not return calls seeking comment Friday. Ron Stuart, a spokesman for the Pinellas-Pasco Judicial Circuit, said Downey would defer comment until a formal order is issued by the state's high court.

In December, the JQC charged Downey, 61, with violating judicial canons based on allegations that he viewed pornography on his chambers computer, that he had improper contact with female lawyers and that he disregarded clues that a juror was sleeping during a murder trial.

In May, Downey and the JQC reached an agreement in which he admitted only to the pornography charge. The other allegations were dropped.

For the first time in its history, the Supreme Court summoned the JQC and a judge to appear before it to explain the agreement.

With Downey standing before them Thursday morning, several justices seemed irked that the judge would continue serving on the bench for six more months and that the charges involving the female attorneys were not addressed more thoroughly.

"Extremely serious charges ... are just vanishing in the air," said Justice Charles T. Wells.

The case involving the two female lawyers may have been difficult to prove, as the women both signed affidavits that said they had no problem with Downey.

Downey also has agreed to Internet restrictions at his office and to continue counseling that he began more than a year ago.

The hearing Thursday was held in front of a packed courtroom of teenage 4-H children who were in Tallahassee for a conference and attended to get a glimpse of the workings of the state Supreme Court. What they heard: justices asking Downey about the pornography and sexual harassment allegations.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said the recent decision by the court to reprimand a Lee County judge, James R. Adams, who had a romantic relationship with an attorney who appeared before him, may have played into the decision to let the agreement stand.

"I think many of us were very surprised that a judge sleeping with a lawyer who appears in front of them gets a public reprimand," Dillinger said of that case. "I think they were kind of boxed in by the Adams case."

Downey's case was unfolding as another Pinellas-Pasco Judge, John Renke III, was removed from the bench by the Supreme Court for campaign violations.

Those two cases come just a few years after the scandal that enveloped Judge Charles Cope, who was reprimanded by the Supreme Court for alcohol-related shenanigans, then abruptly resigned when he learned lawmakers may have been launching an effort to remove him from office.

"The 6th Circuit kind of always made fun of the 13th Circuit because the judges over there were always in hot water," observed Dillinger, referring to judicial scandals in Hillsborough County in the 1990s. "And they certainly can't do that anymore.

"I think having gone so long without any problems, to have the number we have had is a disappointment."

[Last modified June 30, 2006, 23:52:07]

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