Prompted in part by Florida Supreme Court justices and the potential loss of a new courthouse, a group of high-powered lawyers is launching its own effort to restore public confidence in Broward County's fractured judiciary.
The project is spearheaded by former Democratic state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, prominent Republican lawyer Edward Pozzuoli and Eugene Pettis, a member of The Florida Bar Board of Governors.
The group began organizing in the past few weeks and is attempting to set up an initial meeting.
The objective: Help bring respect back to a bench beset by criminal investigation, insensitive comments and inappropriate actions.
"We have a great judiciary. We just have to prove it to the public," Campbell said. "The group is starting because there is a call for help."
The group plans to discuss ways to bring the judges back into the public's good graces and wants to meet with incoming Chief Judge Victor Tobin.
The judge said Tuesday that he is receptive to the lawyers' involvement.
"Everybody's input is welcomed," Tobin said. He added that he discussed the issue with Campbell and with the Broward County Bar Association, which also plans to work with the judiciary.
Other members of the lawyer group include state Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Pompano Beach; Republican fundraiser William Scherer; Broward County Bar Association president Barbara Sunshine; and Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney David Bogenschutz.
Campbell said he discussed the judge issue with Broward state attorney Michael Satz and public defender Howard Finkelstein, and both are on board.
"Everyone involved in Broward's criminal justice system -- the public defender, myself, the clerk of courts, all the judges, private counsel, court administration, BSO -- everyone is lumped together as 'the courthouse' in the eyes of the public," Satz wrote in an e-mail when asked about his involvement. "Skip's group seems like a good idea to help keep all of us on the same page and try to make an already good system even better."
Finkelstein said he had spoken with Campbell about the problems facing the judiciary but was unaware he was forming a group. When told of the plans by the Daily Business Review, Finkelstein said he'd be happy to be part of any effort dedicated to improving the Broward justice system.
He said a few judges have been engaged in rumor-mongering reminiscent of middle school, but on the whole the judges are stellar and the public needs to realize that.
"If I can be helpful, I'd be very proud to serve," Finkelstein said.
The lawyers also fear that political efforts to jump-start plans to build a new courthouse may become a casualty of months of questionable judicial conduct. With property taxes a top concern, county voters defeated a proposed $450 million courthouse bond last November.
Earlier this summer, elected officials raised doubts that taxpayers would support a county commission effort to build a new courthouse as long as judges remained the center of controversies.
Broward judges have spent much of the past year in the headlines for embarrassing blunders, insensitive comments and judicial abuse and misconduct.
Circuit Judge Larry Seidlin drew national ridicule for weeping while presiding over the court fight to decide where the body of the late tabloid icon Anna Nicole Smith should be buried. He also faces a criminal investigation for allegedly asking a lawyer for gifts and financially exploiting an elderly woman.
Circuit Judge Lawrence Korda resigned after being caught smoking pot in a Hollywood park. County Judge Robert Zack faces an investigation for allegedly taking a loan from an attorney. Circuit Judge Cheryl Aleman faces ethics charges from the state Judicial Qualifications Commission for acting discourteously to defense attorneys.
Campbell said the combination of events motivated him and his peers to take action.
He said he also was approached at the Florida Bar convention in June by two Florida Supreme Court justices, who expressed frustration with the behavior of Broward judges and the taint it spread to the Florida bench as a whole.
Campbell declined to identify the justices.
"What can we do? We have to sit down with Judge Tobin to give encouragement that he has to be the parent of all these little kids," Campbell said this week. "And get the kids to grow up."
To supplement the effort, newly installed Broward County Bar Association president Barbara Sunshine said she assigned two committees to find solutions to the problems plaguing the bench.
She said the association's bench-bar and professional responsibility committees will start working after members meet with Tobin in September.
Seiler said the county's judiciary is one of the best in the state but is being dragged down by a handful of judges behaving badly. He said the group is needed to help promote a positive image of the bench.
"The media have been very tough on the judges lately, and we need to try to work hard to restore their image," he said. "This is not any secret society, just a bunch of us talking and [asking] why can't we all try to help out?"
Campbell and Pozzuoli of Tripp Scott in Fort Lauderdale said they plan to reach out to more attorneys to get involved and believe they are on the right track.
"The fact that a group of lawyers of this caliber has agreed to assist, I think that's a good start," Pozzuoli said. "Essentially, the idea is that we're simply here to help where we can."