Broward Chief Circuit Judge Victor Tobin is leaving the bench to go into foreclosure law, ending four years as chief judge in which he tackled the circuit’s tarnished image, dealt with the foreclosure crisis and fought to replace a crumbling courthouse.
Tobin notified fellow judges by email Tuesday that he would be leaving at the end of June to start work July 1 at the Law Offices of Marshall C. Watson, one of Florida’s biggest foreclosure law firms. Circuit Judge Peter Weinstein succeeds him as chief judge July 1.
The Fort Lauderdale law firm where Tobin is headed settled an investigation by the state attorney general’s office into allegations of fraudulent foreclosures filings by paying a $2 million penalty in March. The firm cooperated with the investigation and made no admission of wrongdoing.
Tobin said he will have a supervisory role at the firm.
"Number one, it’s a firm that has a need. Number two, it’s a good fit for me. It’s an opportunity for me to carry on some of what I’ve done in the courthouse to see that best practices are used. They instituted a best-practices policy, and I’m going to make sure that is followed and make sure we do everything right," he said.
Tobin, who became a judge in 1996 after 20 years in private practice, was in charge when the foreclosure crisis overloaded court dockets so much that a judge set up shop in a hallway to process cases. The foreclosure caseload climbed 516 percent in Broward County from 2006 to 2008.
He was successful in helping persuade Broward County commissioners to approve funding for a $328 million courthouse project last year. The downtown Fort Lauderdale courthouse was battered by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and has suffered since then from floods from leaky pipes, sewage backups, mold and balky elevators.
A previous courthouse ballot measure died at the polls in 2006, so Tobin joined Clerk of Courts Howard Forman, then Broward County Bar Association president Carlos Llorente and others in campaigning for a new home for the court.
"He really went out, got the judges behind him, and he’s going to go down in history for that," said Fort Lauderdale attorney Bill Scherer, a Conrad & Scherer partner. He said Tobin’s departure "is going to be a hell of a loss" for the circuit, but he "will bring some needed credibility" to the foreclosure industry.
Tobin’s relations with Forman were at times frosty. Tobin called a public hearing to air complaints about the clerk’s office for slow service and misfiled court papers and went head to head with Forman over his office operations.
In 2007, Scherer was part of a short-lived group that formed to improve the court’s image after a number of embarrassing slips by judges.
Tobin adopted the role of a peacemaker among judges and a hardliner on a mission to address court problems promptly and aggressively when he took charge that year, according to several members of the Broward bar.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, another attorney who joined the group seeking to restore confidence in the court in 2007, called Tobin a "stabilizing force."
"When judge Tobin came in, he helped stabilize the situation. He spent a lot of time reaching out to the community to keep people informed of what was going on at the courthouse," he said. "He really reached out … just let everyone know things were OK."
Tobin became chief judge in a contested election after Circuit Judge Dale Ross decided to step down in 2007.
"There was a perception (Tobin) had to do housecleaning, but just by virture of him coming in and reaching out to legislators, he sent a message of transparency, helped patch things up," said Seiler of Wilton Manors law firm Seiler Sautter Zaden Rimes & Weihe.
Before becoming a judge, Tobin worked at the public defender’s office and as a private attorney doing criminal defense, personal injury and medical malpractice.
He said the state investigation of Watson’s firm was not a factor in his decision.
"The AG investigation in terms of them is over. They provided the documents that the AG wanted, and they have finished with the AG’s office. That has no real play in it," Tobin told the Daily Business Review.
He said he will have a supervisory function in the firm’s foreclosure work.
"That will be my principal role, and whatever else comes my way; if I have to make some court appearances, that will not be a problem," Tobin said.
He said he had been considering a move to the Watson firm since early March.
"It appeared to me, after speaking with a lot of people, that this was going to be the best fit for me."