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Lust, lies and disorder in court

Sworn statements of judges show a bizarre conflict playing out behind the scenes.

By LUCY MORGAN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published February 3, 2008


TALLAHASSEE -- Rarely do outsiders get an inside peek at how judges work together. But last week, judges on the state's biggest and most powerful appeal court testified about one another. It was not a pretty sight.

They described a court where judges of the 1st District Court of Appeal have accused each other of lying, having affairs with court employees, threats and playing games of "chicken." Former Chief Judge Charles J. Kahn Jr. was described as "volatile," "duplicitous" and "schizoid." They called him a liar, given to temper tantrums.

The marshal who has provided court security for more than 25 years testified that he arranged to have extra law enforcement officers attend a ceremonial event after they heard that Kahn was getting a concealed weapons permit and a handgun.

The marshal said two other judges decided to get guns at the same time. Kahn says he never did get a gun permit but did learn how to shoot at a pistol range in Sopchoppy.

As acrimony between the judges spiraled out of control, the marshal put a lock on the judge's robing room to keep Kahn from getting in during the ceremony.

And Kahn is not even the one on trial.

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That honor goes to Judge Michael E. Allen. The Judicial Qualifications Commission has accused him of conduct unbecoming a judge for acting with animus and hostility when he made disparaging comments about Kahn in a written opinion.

Allen's lawyer says it marks the first time in judicial history that a judge has been charged with wrongdoing for something he wrote in a formal opinion.

Allen wrote that Kahn should have disqualified himself from a case because a close associate of the defendant was Kahn's former law partner. "We should never perform our responsibilities in a manner that would cause the public to question the impartiality of our decisions," he wrote.

Allen denies that hostility toward Kahn motivated his opinion. Trial is scheduled March 10.

Court members were questioned under oath last week by F. Wallace Pope, a Clearwater lawyer specially appointed as a JQC prosecutor in the case, and Bruce Rogow, the Fort Lauderdale lawyer who represents Allen.

Allen's written opinion came in the case of former Sen. President W.D. Childers, a major player on the state's political stage for more than 30 years before term limits chased him out of the Senate in 2000.

Childers loved the behind the scenes intrigue and once conspired with Gov. Lawton Chiles to secretly pass a law that allowed the state to sue major tobacco companies. The plot was cooked up by Pensacola lawyer Fred Levin, a former law partner of Kahn's and longtime friend of Childers.

After leaving the Senate, Childers won a seat on the Escambia County Commission, where he delivered a cooking pot filled with cash to a fellow commissioner to buy his vote on a $4.1-million land deal.

When Childers' bribery conviction and 3-1/2-year prison sentence came up on appeal in 2004, Kahn wrote an opinion in a 2-1 vote overturning the case. But a majority of the court's 15 judges decided to let the full court rule. They voted 10-4 to uphold Childers' conviction.

When lawyers for Childers asked the court to send the case to the Florida Supreme Court, Allen wrote the opinion that said Kahn should have disqualified himself because of his close ties to Levin.

Levin's son, Martin, filed a JQC complaint against Allen. Thirteen of the other judges on the appeals court filed a JQC complaint against Kahn over his affairs with court employees.

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An employee who keeps the court's computer systems running complained to several court officials that Kahn was having an affair with the same court clerk he was dating.

The computer specialist "bought her birthday gifts, valentines, sprinkled her desk with rose petals one morning, all at the same time she was having an affair with Kahn," according to testimony last week from current Chief Judge Edwin B. Browning Jr.

Confronted by Browning and others on the court about the affair, Kahn lied to them, Browning said. When the computer specialist produced photographs of Kahn and his girlfriend in a South Florida hotel, Browning went back to Kahn.

He said he took along Judge James R. Wolf. "Kahn has a bad temper and I didn't want to go in by myself. I was going to step on his toes and wanted a witness with me," Browning testified.

"Judge Kahn had a trip hair temper and could go off the deep end and be irrational."

Kahn helped the woman get a job in the Office of the State Court Administrator. (The judges say Kahn also had an affair with another state court administrative employee.)

Browning called the affair with the court clerk a breach of judicial ethics that "exposes the court to liability" and "dishonor." He said other problems arose when Kahn surreptitiously distributed pay raises to some employees using a double set of books.

The judges forced Kahn to resign as chief judge. A majority of the court's 15 judges filed a JQC complaint against him in 2006. The JQC dismissed it.

Browning said that when Kahn was advised that the court was about to produce public records in response to a request from the St. Petersburg Times, Kahn "went schizoid -- bouncing off the walls, he was totally irrational and started screaming and hollering he was going to report me to the JQC. He threatened to sue me, too."

Don Brannon, marshal at the court for 27 years, described other tantrums Kahn threw, over a parking place and travel reimbursements.

"He didn't seem to be stable, it was scary," Brannon said as he described Kahn's request to take a gun course required for a concealed weapons permit. "More than one person had come to me with concerns."

Judge Brad Thomas had been on the appellate court only about 10 days back in January 2005 when he asked to speak to Kahn about a draft of the chief judge's opinion that would have overturned Childers' conviction.

Thomas, a former prosecutor and legislative expert on criminal law who once worked in Childers' Senate, thought Kahn's opinion was wrongly decided.

Instead of discussing the case, Kahn told Thomas "to get out of my f------ office," and sent him on his way.

Testifying last week, Kahn was asked about his encounter with Thomas. He admitted losing his temper. "I had been on the court 14 or 15 years and he had been on the court a week or two."

He would not answer questions about the affairs.

He accused his fellow judges of acting illegally when they took the Childers case away from him and has denied any conflict of interest because of his friendship with Levin.

Kahn testified that he called the elder Levin the day Allen's court opinion was released. He said Levin brought his son into one telephone call to discuss the situation. Kahn said he told them he would not file a complaint against a fellow judge himself, but noted that the JQC was there for that purpose. Martin Levin subsequently filed a complaint.

Several of the judges testified that they did not believe Allen's opinion violated any ethical rule and questioned the JQC decision to file charges against him.

"I thought it was outrageous that the JQC proceeded against Judge Allen and not Judge Kahn," said Judge Peter D. Webster. "What Judge Kahn did reflected badly on our court as an institution and was the kind of thing for which judges ought to be disciplined."

Childers remains in prison. Allen and Kahn remain on the court.

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