Judge Watson's Attorney Warns JQC That It's Reminiscent Of KGB

, Daily Business Review

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Laura M. Watson
Laura M. Watson

An attorney for Broward Circuit Judge Laura Watson warned the ethics panel trying her Wednesday that the state Judicial Qualifications Commission was moving into a realm once occupied by the Soviet Union's KGB intelligence agency.

Calling the KGB as a "heinous organization," Robert Sweetapple of Sweetapple Broeker & Varkas in Boca Raton described the Watson inquiry as a test case on the limits of the JQC authority.

"You have to have some present conduct—the judge either campaigning or while a judge has done something wrong—that's when the JQC gets jurisdiction. Then they can look back," Sweetapple said in his closing argument of a three-day trial.

Watson is accused of Florida Bar ethics violations for her conduct in insurance litigation that she worked on as an attorney from 2001 to 2004. Watson was elected to the bench in November 2012. She risks removal from the bench if found guilty.

Sweetapple argued the commission's scope covered matters such as a judge taking bribes or drugs.

"That's understandable—a pattern, a composite," Sweetapple said. "Not no judicial misconduct and let's go look at your past. We cannot go there."

The JQC's 1966 rule, upheld by the Florida Supreme Court, allows the commission to look at a conduct of judges when they were attorneys. Sweetapple warned a mandate so broad can be abused.

"It's the scariest thing I can think of," he said. "Any group of lawyers and judges that can go confront judges privately with anything about their past, they control the judiciary."

She was charged over her role in a settlement she helped draft in 2004 in a quasi class action involving about 2,100 personal injury protection claims against Progressive Insurance, which was accused of shorting or denying claims by medical professionals collecting for services from PIP policies in auto accidents.

Watson's firm, along with two other PIP law firms, reached a $14.5 million settlement, which excluded fees for a fourth law firm, Stewart Tilghman Fox & Bianchi of Miami, which was retained to handle bad faith claims. Stewart Tilghman was fired shortly before the PIP attorneys settled.

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