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James T. Carlisle, the Palm Beach Circuit Court judge who Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal found had committed major reversible errors in the Humana case, has plenty of critics among lawyers who practice before him. Chief among them are the judges of the 4th DCA. A Daily Business Review examination of 4th DCA opinions found that this year alone, the West Palm Beach-based appellate court reversed Carlisle 17 times while upholding his rulings only four times. Carlisle’s high reversal rate doesn’t surprise the half-dozen lawyers interviewed by the Review who have practiced before him. While most of them decline to comment about the judge on the record, some say Carlisle, 67, who’s been on the circuit bench since 1984, lacks the legal skills and intellectual rigor to craft rulings that can withstand appellate scrutiny. On the other hand, they say, his judicial demeanor is very pleasant. “I don’t think he’s stupid, but I don’t think there is a rigorous analysis there,” says one lawyer. “He does what he thinks is right, but we don’t hire judges solely for their individual sense of justice.” One attorney willing to talk on the record is Fort Lauderdale, Fla., solo attorney Robert Slotkin. He describes the experience in Carlisle’s courtroom as “shocking.” In 1998, Slotkin went to trial in front of Carlisle in the case of a client who was trying to recover money from an ex-girlfriend with whom he had purchased a house. The man claimed that he sank a lot of money into the property, put it in his girlfriend’s name and then she kicked him out. In the middle of the trial, Carlisle interrupted the cross-examination of Slotkin’s client and said, as Slotkin recalls, “I wouldn’t believe this guy if he was sitting on a stack of Bibles.” He then granted summary judgment to the girlfriend and told Slotkin to take it up with the appellate court. “Even a first- or second-year lawyer would know that you can’t do that,” says Slotkin, who in July won a reversal of Carlisle’s ruling from the 4th District Court of Appeal. Slotkin is hardly alone in his perception of Carlisle. The attorneys interviewed say Carlisle often invites lawyers who are unhappy with his decisions to “take it up with the appellate court.” Some find that attitude troubling, because trial court judges are supposed to strive to get it right the first time. Even before last month’s 4th DCA reversal of the $80 million Humana verdict, Carlisle hadn’t found much favor with the appellate court. Lawyers say that when they appear before the 4th DCA to appeal a Carlisle ruling, they sometimes jokingly preface their argument by saying: “This is an appeal from the court of Judge Carlisle, but there are other reasons for reversal.” “He’s one of those judges who doesn’t much care about being reversed,” says Gary Farmer, an appellate lawyer and name partner at Gillespie Goldman Kronengold & Farmer in Fort Lauderdale. Carlisle, who began handling family court matters in the Delray Beach, Fla., satellite courthouse January as part of a regular rotation of judges, is on vacation in North Carolina and isn’t scheduled to return until the end of the month, according to his judicial assistant. He did not return messages left with the assistant. Carlisle became a circuit judge in 1984 when he unseated Paul T. Douglas in a tough election. Prior to that he was a county court judge. In the 1984 race, Carlisle had the backing of prominent West Palm Beach plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Montgomery, now a name partner with Montgomery & Larson. According to published reports at the time, Montgomery claimed Douglas asked him and his firm to drop their campaign support for Carlisle or face adverse rulings from him. Montgomery now says his decision to back Carlisle was more an effort to oust Douglas than a ringing endorsement of Carlisle. But he defends Carlisle as a competent judge “who does not suffer fools. … Judge Carlisle has a lot of starch in his backbone. He calls the balls and the strikes as best as he possibly could,” says Montgomery. Louis Silber, a partner at Silber & Valente in West Palm Beach, describes Carlisle as having a “down-to-earth, folksy style.” Silber also defends the judge’s record on appeal. “All judges get reversed,” he says. “I think it would be unfair to say that he is not a capable judge.” But lots of lawyers in Palm Beach County disagree with Silber, judging from last year’s Palm Beach County Bar Association judicial poll results. On a question about the judges’ “knowledge and application of the law,” only two Palm Beach Circuit judges received more “needs improvement” votes from the county’s attorneys than Carlisle: John D. Wessel and Catherine M. Brunson. Carlisle received 27 such votes, out of a total of 155 votes cast. This year, the 4th DCA has found Carlisle to have committed some gross legal errors. For instance, Carlisle found C. Elvin Feltner Jr. guilty of indirect criminal contempt. Carlisle reached this verdict after hearing testimony from witnesses. But he dispensed with closing arguments, explaining: “I understand [the defendant] is entitled to a full panel of his rights, but I don’t know if there is any right to make a closing argument, and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong,” In June, the 4th DCA ruled that Carlisle indeed was wrong, reversing the decision and remanding the case to the trial court. Paul Golis, a solo Boca Raton, Fla., attorney who handled the appeal for Feltner, declined to comment on that specific case. In general, he says of Carlisle that “I don’t always agree with his opinion, but I have found him to be fair.” Some attorneys appreciate Carlisle’s willingness to take risks to do what he thinks is right. “I would rather have a judge who isn’t afraid to make mistakes than a judge who is more concerned with their win-loss record,” says Jeff Liggio, a name partner at Liggio Benrubi & Williams in West Palm Beach and former president of the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers. And no one can say that Carlisle isn’t a straight talker with a sense of humor. In 1996, in a divorce case involving a woman who was seeking $7,500 a month in temporary support, Carlisle noted that the woman was living in a million-dollar house, spending $1,600 a month on clothing and $400 a month on a maid. His ruling: “Give her $5,000 a month, let her fire the maid and wear last month’s clothes. OK? And, let’s go home.”

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