Chief appeals judge steps down
Charles J. Kahn Jr., accused of appearing to aid a former senator, loses "chief."
By LUCY MORGAN
Published November 18, 2006
TALLAHASSEE - Florida's largest appellate court has quietly replaced its chief judge amid internal rancor and suggestions of political influence surrounding the bribery conviction and prison sentence of former Sen. W.D. Childers.
Charles J. Kahn Jr., elected in 2005 to head the 1st District Court of Appeal for two years, resigned the chief judge's job last month in the face of a revolt by fellow judges.
A formal complaint alleging misconduct has been lodged against Kahn, documents obtained Friday by the St. Petersburg Times indicate.
In a written opinion denying Childers' appeal of his bribery conviction, another judge suggested that the public might conclude that Kahn was trying to reverse Childers' conviction as a political favor.
In 1991, at the time Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Kahn to the court, he was a law partner of Fred Levin, a prominent trial lawyer who is extremely close to Childers.
In 1994, Levin, Childers and Chiles hatched a plan to sneak a law through the Legislature that allowed the state to sue tobacco companies and collect $13-billion to repay the costs of providing health care to smokers who depend on Medicaid.
Childers was a major player on the state's political stage for more than 30 years, wheeling and dealing as Senate president and chairman of important committees.
Often dressed in bright pink or green jackets on the floor of the Senate, Childers was adept at taking home the bacon for his West Florida district. He got fellow legislators to include money in the state budget for a new football stadium at the University of West Florida - a school with no football team.
Forced by term limits to leave the Senate in 2000, he won election to the Escambia County Commission. He was charged with delivering a cooking pot filled with cash to fellow Commissioner Willie Junior in return for his vote on a $4.1-million land purchase.
Junior testified against Childers, who was convicted of bribery. Before Childers' appeal was decided, Junior was found under a house; the coroner concluded that Junior killed himself by drinking antifreeze.
Childers appealed his conviction and 3½-year prison sentence to the 1st District Court of Appeal.
A three-judge panel headed by Kahn voted 2-1 to overturn Childers' conviction. Kahn drafted the opinion focusing on limits the trial judge set on cross- examination of Junior.
That's when things turned unusual: The other judges on the court decided to all hear the case, "en banc," over the vehement objection of Kahn and the other two judges on the panel. The full court voted 10-4 to uphold the conviction.
Childers' lawyers asked the appeal court to refer the case to the Florida Supreme Court to determine the legality of having the entire 1st District vote.
In late June, again by a 10-4 vote, the 1st District rejected Childers' appeal. Judge Michael E. Allen attached an opinion defending the decision to have the entire court review the case. Allen said he was concerned that Kahn's involvement would lead to "public perceptions of partiality by this court."
Attaching newspaper articles that described the friendship between Levin and Childers, Allen said some Floridians might believe that Levin and Childers influenced Kahn's attempt to overturn the conviction.
Allen noted that probably would leave Childers free because Junior is no longer available to testify.
"And the deciding vote would have been cast by Fred Levin's former law partner," Allen wrote. "The threat this case presented to the reputation of this court, in my judgment, made it a case of exceptional importance. ...
"We should never perform our responsibilities in a manner that would cause the public to question the impartiality of our decisions," Allen wrote. "Yet I believe that is precisely what Judge Kahn did by failing, on his own motion, to recuse himself from consideration in this case."
Kahn says it's for best
Contacted Thursday, Kahn would not discuss the reason he resigned as chief judge except to say he thought it was best for the court. He remains on the court.
Kahn said he has not maintained a relationship with Levin since he was appointed to the court 16 years ago. He said he does not review cases involving the Levin law firm.
Levin said Friday that he asked Chiles to appoint Kahn to the court but said he has rarely seen him in the past 16 years.
"I went to his father's funeral, and he attended my brother's funeral, but that's about all," Levin said.
Levin said he believes the judges targeted him for criticism because they are jealous of the large fees many lawyers make. On the tobacco case, Levin will collect fees of about $200-million over 25 years.
Judge Edwin B. Browning Jr., the new chief judge at the 1st District, did not return telephone calls. Documents Browning released say that Kahn's fellow judges met in early October to discuss "concerns within the court over leadership and personal relationships within the court." Kahn appeared at the meeting and resigned.
Misconduct allegations against a judge generally are handled by the Judicial Qualifications Commission and remain secret until formal charges are brought.
On Thursday, in response to a request from 12 of the judges at the 1st District, Kahn was removed from the District Court of Appeal Budget Commission.
Childers, who turns 73 next week, is serving his sentence at Glades Correctional Institution in South Florida.
Said Levin: "Knowing W.D., he's king of whatever prison he's in."
Lucy Morgan can be reached at 850 224-7263 or email@example.com.
[Last modified November 18, 2006, 01:15:43]
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