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Report: Legal panel was right to be tough

The review says a member of a judicial nominating commission was not out of line when she asked personal questions.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- A panel named by the Florida Bar has determined that one of the state's judicial nominating commissions was right to ask a series of tough, personal questions of Jacksonville lawyer Scott Makar last year.

Betsy White, the Jacksonville lawyer who asked Makar about his 1999 divorce and whether he gave his wife a sexually transmitted disease, was merely questioning his fitness to be a judge, wrote former Supreme Court Justice Joseph Hatchett in a 14-page opinion released Thursday.

White's questions of Makar, a prominent lawyer at Holland & Knight's Jacksonville office, prompted outrage from a number of North Florida lawyers. They accused White of trying to help a friend get the job while tarnishing the image of a lawyer with ties to Gov. Jeb Bush.

Under the judicial nominating commission system, applicants for appointments to the district courts of appeal are interviewed by a panel appointed by the Florida Bar and the governor. The group then nominates three or more candidates for each judicial vacancy.

Makar was seeking an appointment to the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee when he ran into the hostile questions about his divorce. Makar did not get the appointment.

White insisted that she was merely performing her duty as a member of the commission by following up on rumors she heard about Makar. She had her law firm's investigator pull his divorce file and delivered selected portions of it to other members of the commission before the interview.

Makar complained that the pages she selected included the allegation of a sexually transmitted disease but omitted a medical statement that said he didn't have the disease.

After getting a complaint from a citizen advocacy group in Jacksonville, Florida Bar president Herman Russomanno appointed Hatchett and two others to hear testimony from White and other witnesses.

Makar did not appear at the hearing because he was ill and the panel declined to postpone the hearing until he could be available.

The incident prompted outrage from Bush and others who said they felt Makar was unfairly treated by the panel.

In the past, some commissions have been criticized for raising questions about a candidate during private deliberations instead of confronting the candidate during a public session.

In his investigative report, Hatchett commended the judicial nominating commission for raising questions about Makar in a public session and recommended that the state's other nominating commissions do the same when considering issues relevant to an appointment.

Russomanno said he is sending Hatchett's recommendations to all of the state's judicial nominating commissions.

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