Broward Circuit Judge Laura Watson, battling an ethics investigation by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, could not persuade the chair to dismiss the case Wednesday.
The hearing marked the first appearance of Boca Raton attorney Robert Sweetapple for Watson, who had been representing herself since formal charges were filed July 24.
Watson was elected to the circuit a year ago, and she is being tried for her conduct as an insurance litigator in a case that produced a $14.5 million settlement with Progressive Insurance in 2004.
Watson’s firm was one of several personal injury protection firms that in 2002 retained a bad faith torts law firm in Miami, then known as Stewart Tilghman Fox & Bianchi, to help with the litigation.
The PIP law firms reached a secret settlement with Progressive that cut the bad faith attorneys out of a share of legal fees and substantially diminished the amount going to clients. Stewart Tilghman sued, and Palm Beach Circuit Judge David Crow awarded them $3 million and referred the PIP firms to The Florida Bar in 2008.
Appeals and a bankruptcy filing by two co-defendants delayed Bar action. On the eve of Watson’s election, The Bar found probable case but did not proceed because she became a judge.
Following up The Bar’s findings, the JQC alleged Watson improperly allocated settlement funds, failed to inform clients of conflicts of interest in the settlement, failed to provide clients with closing statements or failed to advise them of material facts necessary to make an informed decision.
On Wednesday, Sweetapple attacked Miles McGrane of the McGrane Law Firm in Miami and the attorney for the JQC hearing panel, claiming he relied on allegations that exceeded the statute of limitations.
“I call upon Mr. McGrane to candidly tell the chair that he recognizes he led the investigatory panel into error,” Sweetapple said.
After warning Sweetapple against lecturing him about how to practice law, McGrane told Fifth District Court of Appeal Judge Kerry Evander, the presiding chair, that from the beginning Watson has continuously made innuendos that the JQC was somehow in collusion with the lawyers who sued her, in collusion with The Bar and has even threatened the JQC, stating at one point that it was not protected from liability.
McGrane cited the case of another judge who alleged a conspiracy with political enemies where the Florida Supreme Court took into account the judge’s conduct during proceedings in its final determination.
Sweetapple, a managing member of Sweetapple, Broeker & Varkas, called McGrane’s comments improper.
“Judge Watson has a bona fide contention here that this investigation is unfounded,” Sweetapple said.
Evander told Sweetapple that all of his arguments were made by Watson at the last hearing and said the Supreme Court spearheaded a 1974 constitutional amendment to cure any gap between Bar and JQC investigations. In a 1994 decision, the Supreme Court determined ethics violations were not necessarily applied to conduct during a judge’s term or during the election as Watson had argued.
“As far as conduct in litigating the case, certainly, I find no improprieties in Judge Watson attacking the JQC’s jurisdiction,” Evander said.
The court set trial for Feb. 10.