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Judge accused, then given more authority

Brandt Downey, who has faced allegations over pornography and harassment, is appointed to hear appeals.

By CHRIS TISCH
Published July 8, 2006


CLEARWATER - One week after Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Brandt Downey was questioned by the Florida Supreme Court about allegations of pornography and sexual harassment, the circuit's chief judge appointed him to a panel with the power to review appeals.

The move upset several Pinellas judges, who said Friday that the chief judge, David Demers, could have found a better choice than Downey, who will receive a public reprimand from the Florida Supreme Court in September.

"You would think that given everything that's happened, that there would be someone he could place on that panel who did not occupy such a position of controversy," said Circuit Judge Doug Baird.

Circuit Judge Tim Peters declined to comment specifically on Demers, but said: "It's unfortunate that another controversial issue has been created by this placement when it could have been easily avoided."

Demers said Friday that he didn't think Downey's recent troubles would affect his service on the panel.

"It seemed essentially disconnected from anything having to do with his recent difficulties," Demers said.

Downey, who is required by the high court to retire at year's end, agreed.

"Yeah, okay, I made some mistakes," he said. "I admit that. I admitted that to the Florida Supreme Court. I've got six months left. Just let me do my job, and being on this panel is part of that job."

The three-judge panel to which Downey was appointed reviews appeals of civil county court cases in Clearwater.

Downey and another judge volunteered. But the second judge was already on an appellate panel and Downey volunteered first, Demers said. "He seemed to me to be the logical choice," Demers said.

Said Downey: "I don't know why David picked me. Obviously, he still has confidence in me even if your newspaper doesn't."

The panels do not wield much power. The judges review appeals of mostly small claims cases or county civil cases of less than $15,000.

Another panel reviews civil appeals out of St. Petersburg. Together, the two panels handle about 110 appeals a year.

The judges review the cases in addition to their regular workload. They receive no extra pay.

"We look at it as judicial extra duty," said Ron Stuart, a spokesman for Demers. "It's certainly not anything that would be considered a plum assignment."

Even before his recent troubles, Downey was a somewhat controversial figure on the criminal bench he occupied for years. Though he was known as hardworking and was generally liked by prosecutors and defense lawyers, he also was frequently reversed by appellate judges - sometimes with harsh words.

A 2005 study by the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office found Downey had been reversed in 72 cases since 2000, more than other Pinellas criminal judges.

Downey has said previously that he thinks the appeals court affirmed 20 of his cases for every one it overturned. Several of Downey's more high-profile cases from his last year on the criminal bench, including one where he ordered an unruly defendant's mouth taped shut, have been affirmed by the appeals court in recent months.

Still, Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, a critic of Downey's, said his appellate record makes him unsuitable for the panel.

"Having the most reversed judge in the circuit sitting as an appellate judge seems a bit unusual," Dillinger said. "I think with the number of judges that we have, other choices were clearly available to get more public confidence in the judiciary."

Downey's other troubles began a little more than a year ago, when he was accused of sending sexually suggestive e-mails to a female prosecutor who appeared before him. At about the same time, viruses infecting his office computer were found to come from pornographic Web sites.

Information would later surface that a fellow judge, Linda Allan, had a year earlier told Demers of concerns about Downey's interest in another female prosecutor. Allan said Downey consistently asked her to switch the prosecutor's cases from her courtroom to his and harassed the woman. Downey at the time denied many of the allegations. Demers told him to leave the woman alone.

But Downey took a leave of absence and sought counseling after allegations emerged about the second female prosecutor and the pornography. Demers shifted Downey from the criminal to the civil bench.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission later charged Downey with violating several judicial canons. Downey and the JQC worked out a compromise in which Downey admitted to the pornography charges, though other charges were essentially dropped.

Downey agreed to retire at the end of the year and to not seek judicial office again. He also agreed to receive a public reprimand and to write a letter of apology.

Last week, Florida Supreme Court justices summoned Downey to appear in front of them and aggressively quizzed him about the allegations. Some justices seemed perturbed that some charges weren't being pursued, but the next day they signed off on the agreement.

The timing surprised Judge Allan .

"In light of the recent comments made by the members of the Florida Supreme Court to Judge Downey, his looming public reprimand and his mandated departure from office in December, I was surprised to learn of his appointment," Allan said.

[Last modified July 8, 2006, 01:05:08]


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