High court gives judge a 15-minute reprimand

"Judge Downey, what were you thinking?" the chief justice asks of the longtime jurist done in by computer porn and sex harassment claims.

Published September 23, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - For 17 years, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Brandt Downey ran a bustling criminal courtroom and oversaw some of the highest-profile cases in the area. In that time, Downey earned a reputation as a hard-working and energetic jurist, even if he sometimes made controversial decisions.

On Friday morning, those years of hard work seemed long ago as Downey stood, with head lowered, before the Florida Supreme Court.

Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis read a scathing 15-minute public reprimand to Downey, whose long career was dismantled by allegations that he habitually viewed pornography in the courthouse and made advances on female lawyers in his courtroom.

"Judge Downey, what were you thinking?" Lewis pointedly asked the Pinellas judge. "What were you thinking?"

Downey stood silent as Lewis chided him. A nearly full courtroom listened. Downey apologized to the justices before leaving.

"I would like to humbly accept this reprimand," he said quietly. "I have already apologized profusely to my family and friends. ... I am honestly and truthfully sorry for my actions. ... I feel in my heart that God has forgiven me for my sins."

In a deal brokered with the Judicial Qualifications Commission and approved by the state's high court, Downey will remain a judge until his retirement at the end of the year. He has agreed to never seek judicial office again, or serve as a senior judge, something many jurists do after retirement.

Lewis called the arrangement a "deal with the devil" that the court felt compelled to approve. If the court had rejected the agreement, the JQC case against Downey likely would have continued long after his retirement, and there would have been no guarantee that he could not run for judge again.

The tall and lanky Downey was for years one of the most visible figures in the Pinellas criminal courthouse. He was known for working long and hard, often keeping juries late into the night to decide some of the most high-profile murder cases in the county. He was sometimes accused of tilting toward the prosecution, but defense attorneys generally respected his work ethic and often polite demeanor.

But Downey also showed another side. He generated controversy by dressing down a jury that acquitted a defendant. Some of his decisions were criticized by appellate judges, whose directions Downey once ignored. He also was charged with violating judicial canons by discarding a note from a juror who claimed a fellow juror was sleeping during a murder trial, a move that some lawyers said demonstrated his arrogance on the bench.

Downey weathered the controversy until his career began to unravel in the spring of 2005, when a virus infected the courthouse computer system. Technicians determined Downey had allowed the virus into the system by accessing pornographic Web sites.

Almost simultaneously, the circuit's chief judge, David Demers, learned that Downey had seemingly pursued relationships with two female lawyers who appeared before him. Downey has always denied that he sexually harassed these lawyers, though he has acknowledged that his actions toward them were inappropriate.

Demers learned that Downey asked one of the lawyers to lunch and asked another judge to transfer her cases to his courtroom. He sent another female lawyer e-mails that sounded sexually suggestive.

Downey took a two-week leave of absence from the bench, during which he sought counseling. He returned to his courtroom, but Demers later shifted Downey off his criminal bench to civil court, where the cases on his docket were not so high-profile.

In December, the JQC charged Downey with violating numerous judicial canons. Downey at first tried to fight the charges, mostly without a lawyer, but he soon agreed to end his judicial career at year's end. He will receive retirement pay of up to $99,924 per year, though he can receive less if he wants benefits to continue to his wife if he dies before her.

He was ordered to write a letter of apology and to appear before the Florida Supreme Court for a public reprimand. In exchange, Downey admitted the pornography allegations, and the other charges were dropped.

The deal was so extraordinary that the state Supreme Court, for the first time in its history, summoned the JQC and the judge to appear before it this summer to explain the deal. Some justices seemed to want Downey immediately suspended, but they approved the arrangement.

Downey's case was the first on the docket Friday morning. Lewis took his seat in the middle of the other justices and called Downey forward.

"The conduct that brings you here today is truly shocking," Lewis said, later adding: "Your reckless behavior contributed to what was really a hostile work environment in that courthouse. It's inexcusable, the way you behaved."

Lewis also told Downey his actions were "an embarrassment to the people of Florida."

"I am embarrassed to sit in the middle chair this morning," Lewis said. "You should have known better ... it's a shadow on all of us.

"Let this be a message that this behavior by judicial officers will not be tolerated," he added.

Downey made his short apology and left the courtroom. As he prepared to exit the courthouse, he noticed television news cameramen waiting outside the door. A look of worry seeped into his face.

"Are they here for me?" he asked. Someone told him they were.

With that, Downey opened the door and walked onto the courthouse steps. The cameras surrounded him and a reporter with a microphone peppered him with questions.

Downey, who declined to comment, walked through them, down the steps and onto the sidewalk. The cameramen followed him for a full city block before they let him go, his head still lowered.