Judicial rifts surface

Two complaints involve one judge. A sexual harassment case is tossed but an ethics complaint against one of the judge's critics - also a judge - remains.

Published April 11, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - An uproar has engulfed the state's largest and most important appellate court.

Two complaints have been filed with the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, both having to do with the former chief judge of the 1st District Court of Appeal, Charles J. Kahn Jr.

The JQC dismissed one of the complaints, the St. Petersburg Times has learned, and is considering the other.

In one complaint, 13 of the 15 judges on the appeal court said that Kahn had affairs with two court employees, traveled with them at state expense and helped one of them get a better job. Though the relationships were consensual, the judges worried that it amounted to sexual harassment, given the power position the judge holds.

The target of the other complaint to the JQC was a judge who wrote an opinion that criticized Kahn for trying to overturn the bribery conviction of former state Sen. W.D. Childers. This judge wrote that because Kahn had ties to Childers, he should have stepped aside on the case, since the public perception of his participation could embarrass the court.

Which complaint is the JQC pursuing? Not the sexual harassment one. The JQC is going after the judge who was critical of a fellow judge.

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The young woman is in a hotel towel, posing for the camera. In another photo in the sequence, Judge Kahn stands in what appears to be the same bathroom; it's a mirror image where she stands behind him taking the picture as he straightens his tie, his wedding ring front and center on his left hand.

In another photo, the woman and the judge pose on a fountain outside a Boca Raton resort.

The pictures were taken in June 2004, when the woman in the towel, 32-year-old deputy court clerk Jennifer Edwards, accompanied the 55-year-old judge to a Florida Bar convention. The photos were left on a computer in the court clerk's office.

There was also a video that would become part of the JQC complaint, in which Kahn says: "Look at this bed and stuff in here, this is not a good place for a photo," and she calls him "darling" as they discuss plans for the day.

The judges on the 1st District Court, which handles all appellate cases involving state government, were aghast when they found out; 13 of them filed a JQC complaint. They said Kahn traveled at state expense, shared a hotel room with Edwards and then used his influence to help her get a better job with the office of the state court administrator.

They also complained that he had an affair with an employee of the state Office of Court Administration who was assigned to a budget committee that Kahn chaired. His fellow judges say Kahn may have scheduled extra committee meetings to facilitate liaisons with the woman.

State court administrator Lisa Goodner said Tuesday that Kahn did not influence the decision to hire Edwards and extra meetings were not scheduled.

Though the women did not complain of being harassed, the judges worried that Kahn's actions created a hostile workplace.

Kahn, who is married with two daughters, has admitted having an "involvement" with Edwards, but he denied scheduling any extra meetings and said all of his travel was for legitimate state business. He also denied helping her get the state court position.

Records obtained by the Times included e-mails Kahn sent to court administrators in Pinellas County and Jacksonville urging her employment.

Appointed to the court in 1991 by Gov. Lawton Chiles, Kahn is considered an expert on judicial ethics and teaches at the Florida State University College of Law. He has twice chaired the Florida Supreme Court's Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee.

Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, the lawyer who defended Kahn before the JQC, said Kahn was "guilty of some indiscretions" and "some pretty stupid conduct," but neither woman complained of sexual harassment or suggested they were not consenting partners.

D'Alemberte said Kahn has never been involved in any kind of corruption and did not abuse his position or misuse state funds.

"It's a judge who had an affair," he said. "I don't see that as being a big deal, but other people may view it differently."

The JQC, charged with policing the state's judges, recently found no reason to pursue a formal complaint against Kahn. Details of the commission's decision are not available because its proceedings remain confidential unless charges are filed.

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The furor at the Tallahassee appeal court appears to have started as the court considered the politically charged bribery conviction and prison sentence of former Pensacola Sen. W.D. Childers, once one of the state's most powerful politicians.

When his case came before the appeal court about a year ago, Kahn, then the chief judge, tried to write an opinion overturning Childers' conviction. A majority of the 15 judges on the court decided to take the case away from Kahn and two other judges who had voted 2-1 to overturn the conviction. The majority voted 10-4 to uphold Childers' conviction.

When lawyers for Childers asked the court to reconsider, Judge Michael E. Allen penned an opinion questioning Kahn's involvement. Allen said Kahn's longtime friendship and former law partnership with Pensacola trial lawyer Fred Levin, a longtime friend of Childers', threatened the reputation of the court.

"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."

The only other judges from Pensacola - District Court Judge Ed Barfield and Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Bell - did disqualify themselves from any consideration of the Childers case.

Now, the Times has learned, Levin's son has filed a JQC complaint against Allen.

Martin Levin, 42, who gave up the practice of law to go to Harvard Divinity School and now teaches at the New England School of Law, filed his complaint July 11. He said he believes Allen's opinion was "filled with a mean-spirited attack against third parties who had no involvement with the issue."

Allen would not comment Tuesday.

Because the JQC operates in secrecy, nobody would say what Allen might be charged with. Legal experts suggested Allen might be charged with some form of "conduct unbecoming a judge," but said the JQC will likely encounter First Amendment problems trying to prove a case against him.

The elder Levin thinks that the sexual harassment complaint by the other appellate judges was "a slap at Kahn," an unjustified slap, he said, to get back at him because of the Childers case.

Said Fred Levin: "Are all of these guys going to take an oath that they have not messed around? Holy smokes."

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Relationships deteriorated quickly at the 1st District after last summer's blowup.

On Sept. 26, 2006 , Judge Barfield, the senior judge, called a meeting of all the judges to discuss "leadership and personal relationships within the court."

When the judges gathered Oct. 4, Kahn resigned as chief judge but remained on the court. Later that day Kahn wrote a brief letter to Brooke Kennerly, director of the JQC, saying he had been involved in a "consensual" relationship with a woman who was employed in the clerk's office.

"I obviously exercised poor judgment and did something morally wrong," Kahn wrote. "I do not believe I have violated any law or the Code of Judicial Conduct. Nevertheless, I expect this is something the commission will want to look at."

A few days later Barfield made the complaint official, saying the court had conducted an internal investigation and was concerned about potential claims of sexual harassment and having a hostile workplace as well as "projecting a poor image of the judiciary to the public should knowledge of the conduct be made public."

Judge Edwin Browning Jr., the court's new chief judge, sent an e-mail to his fellow judges on March 1 noting that the commission has dismissed the charges but would have "appropriate conversations" with Kahn about his behavior.

Even the court's chief law enforcement officer, Marshal Don Brannon, has been drawn into the fray. In a March 15 memo to the chief judge, Brannon raised questions about Kahn's "inability to control his temper," describing a confrontation with Kahn over his travel records.

Kahn told him "the entire court owed him an apology" but he knew he would not get one, Brannon wrote. Kahn also told him that only he and Judge James Wolf have the guts to stand up to Judge Allen, but that "Mike Allen will be getting his."

Kahn admitted he was angry during the meeting with Brannon, but he wrote a memo saying he was reacting to word that Brannon was snooping into court records at Allen's request.

None of the judges at the court would discuss the situation publicly. Both women declined to comment.

Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.