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Palm Beach County, FL

Judge seeks investigation of leak in misconduct case that threatens her career

South Florida Sun Sentinel
South Florida Sun Sentinel
 2021-07-27
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Palm Beach County Judge Marni Bryson in 2016. Marc Freeman/Sun Sentinel

Attorneys for Palm Beach County Judge Marni Bryson are calling on the state’s judicial watchdog to immediately investigate a leak of confidential information months before she got slapped with misconduct charges.

Bryson’s defense says an inquiry is necessary to find out whether the breach means the Judicial Qualifications Commission has been biased in the handling of her career-threatening case. The commission filed the charges April 13 .

The 47-year-old judge is accused of failing “to devote full time and attention” to her responsibilities from 2016 to 2019, as well as not notifying the chief judge about her absences over the same period. These are alleged violations of state and county judicial rules.

Bryson argues she worked more than enough hours remotely — as became customary during the coronavirus pandemic — while also putting in the required time on the bench and in her courthouse office.

A hearing panel with two judges, two lawyers and two citizens will meet Nov. 15 to decide Bryson’s fate. The panel is responsible for making any disciplinary recommendations to the Florida Supreme Court, which has the final say over punishments that can range from a public reprimand to removal.

Raising concerns publicly for the first time, Bryson’s lawyers late last week wrote that a new investigation is critical to ensuring the fairness of the proceedings. They pointed to a rule that misconduct investigations of judges are to remain confidential until the filing of charges.

But Bryson’s lawyers say that by last September someone had leaked information that the judge was the focus of a JQC complaint.

The complaint was cited in an unrelated civil lawsuit between Bryson and Fort Lauderdale lawyer William Scherer. Bryson, a single mom, accuses Scherer of interfering in her child-custody case against her former husband.

While taking Bryson’s deposition, Scherer’s lawyer asked her, “Now, recently the chief judge has filed a judicial qualifications complaint against you, right?”

Bryson’s attorneys, Robert J. Watson of Stuart and Andrew C. Lourie of Miami, say this disclosure is significant and troubling for numerous reasons:

  • The JQC’s investigation process is strictly confidential, so there is no way that Scherer’s lawyer should have known about it. Scherer already gave a sworn statement that he had no idea about it.
  • Bryson’s lawyers question whether the JQC action was connected to her lawsuit against Scherer filed several months earlier.
  • The lawyers said they twice raised concerns about this information breach before the charges were filed, but the concerns were ignored. They want to know if this was to cover up the leak.
  • The lawyers now argue an investigation is needed to find out if the leaker was a JQC member who supported the charges against her, or if the leaker is on the panel that will preside over Bryson’s final hearing.
  • Bryson’s defenders ask whether now-retired Palm Beach County Chief Judge Krista Marx, also a former head of the JQC, was the person who filed the complaint against Bryson and then leaked the information about the Bryson investigation.

Nothing less than the entire integrity of the JQC is at stake in this issue, says Bryson’s legal team.

“If the Commission is unwilling to hold its members accountable to its own rules, it cannot credibly present itself as the appropriate body to hold individual judges accountable to the rules that regulate the judiciary at large,” Watson and Lourie wrote.

The lawyers declined to comment Monday. Marx has told the South Florida Sun Sentinel she can’t comment on a pending JQC proceeding.

Attorneys for the commission will have an opportunity to file a response to Bryson’s call for an inquiry.

Meanwhile, Bryson still faces the allegations that she was AWOL.

Henry M. Coxe III, special counsel for the JQC, wrote that there is ample proof Bryson “was often absent from her designated court facility. The data will be supported by testimony of other witnesses who are familiar with the (judge’s) work habits both inside and outside court facilities.”

Last month, two organizations slammed the proceedings against Bryson as an “outrage,” making her the victim of “bogus allegations.”

The Palm Beach County National Organization for Women, joined by Families Against Court Travesties, Inc., said there’s a clear connection between Bryson filing her civil lawsuit and the misconduct charges .

“To see a professional legal leader being personally attacked by others in her profession is despicable,” wrote officials with the organizations. “She has done an exceptional job as a jurist and a mom, and these attacks on her are plainly politically motivated; the criticisms are manufactured.”

Marc Freeman can be reached at mjfreeman@sunsentinel.com and on Twitter @marcjfreeman.

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