A judge who “never forgets”

New appellate judge says he never forgets
A Palm Beach County judge who talked about getting even with lawyers who challenge him was appointed to the Fourth District Court of Appeal by Gov. Charlie Crist.
Dan Christensen and Todd Wright
December 22, 2008
The Miami Herald
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/southflorida/story/822318.html
Gov. Charlie Crist promoted Palm Beach Judge Jorge Labarga to a seat on a South Florida appellate court last week despite Labarga’s comments from the bench last year that judges will get even with lawyers who cross them, even if it takes years.

“When you pick a fight with a judge, ultimately, you are gonna lose. Not today, but five years from now, 10 years from now, six years from now. That judge is going to remember you, always, always,” Labarga said.

“And, you know, when you do — there is an old saying that if you go after a judge, you better kill him. Because, like I said, it’s true.”

Labarga, who was also among five finalists recommended this month for appointment to the Florida Supreme Court, made his remarks while presiding over an otherwise routine criminal hearing in Palm Beach Circuit Court on May 23, 2007.

Fort Lauderdale attorney Gary Kollin, whom Labarga was talking about, sent a transcript of the hearing and letter critical of Labarga to the governor’s office on Dec. 2. The governor’s office released them to The Miami Herald. The Miami Herald also obtained a recording of the hearing.

A Crist spokesman said Thursday that the governor was briefed about the transcript by his general counsel, “but they just didn’t feel it was like to the level to affect the governor’s decision.”

But Anthony Alfieri, founder and director of the University of Miami law school’s Center for Ethics and Public Service, called Labarga’s statements in open court “injudicious and unwise.”

“They damage the credibility of individual judges and tarnish the integrity of the courts as a public institution,” Alfieri said.

Labarga said Sunday that he remembered the 2007 case, but did not recall making the specific statements.

“I go through 50, 60 cases a day,” he said.  “If it’s on the transcript, I said it. Judges are human. I had a bad day.”

Labarga said the average person could read the statements and question his ability to be fair and impartial, but he said his record shows that is not the case.

“I’ve been a judge 13 years, and there is no evidence that I hold a grudge,” Labarga said. “I have a really good record. To pick one negative incident out of my whole career is not an accurate portrayal of my overall job performance.”

Crist named Labarga, a Cuban American, to the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach on Dec. 10. Labarga has been a Palm Beach circuit judge since 1996.

Labarga, 55, of Wellington, is out of the running for the Supreme Court seat. The governor asked a nominating group for a new name last week after he picked Labarga for the appeal court, a spokesman said.

2000 RECOUNT

Labarga, an activist with the Cuban American Republican Club before he became a judge, is best known for his role in the 2000 presidential recount.

In one case, Labarga ruled the county’s canvassing board could not arbitrarily toss out all votes with “dimpled chads,” and could decide whether each dimple constituted a vote. In another, he rejected a plea for a revote by voters who said the county’s unique butterfly ballot was so confusing that the election was unfair.

The court’s recording system was running in May 2007 when Kollin appeared before Labarga on behalf of a client accused of selling counterfeit merchandise.

Labarga announced at the outset that he was stepping down from the case because his former law partner, David Roth, represented a co-defendant.

But when a prosecutor’s concern about meeting the law’s speedy trial requirements prompted Labarga to start issuing instructions to a clerk, Kollin objected. And Labarga got annoyed.

“Your Honor, I — since you recused yourself, I would object to you making any directions to the clerk because you can’t make any more rulings on it,” Kollin said.

“I know that,” Labarga responded.  “I appreciate you coming here and educating me. I’m just a little country guy. I just got here off the boat a few months ago. I understand those things.”

“I don’t appreciate the sarcasm,” Kollin replied.

Kollin left the courtroom, and didn’t come back.

But about an hour and a half later, Labarga started talking about him again, saying Kollin wanted to “pick a fight.”

“But you know, five years from now, he may have an attorney’s fees hearing in front of me, he may have this in front of me then. And you are always going to remember those guys,” Labarga said. “He’s very combative. I have to be honest with you. I kind of wish I would have kept that case ’cause he would have been fun.”

Kollin called those remarks “especially heinous” in his letter to the governor. And he accused Labarga of bias, and said he violated judicial canons that say judges must avoid the appearance of impropriety, and perform their duties impartially.

PERSONAL BIAS

Alfieri called the transcript “ambiguous,” however, and said it isn’t clear from it whether Kollin was the victim of a personal bias.

Broward County Bar President Christopher Neilson said working with a judge who seems to be holding a grudge against an attorney would make it “extremely” difficult to practice law.

“Everyone has a right to a fair shot, and if a judge is talking about payback that would be a difficult situation to practice in,” Neilson said.  “Judges wield a tremendous amount of power and discretion in their courtroom when it comes to granting motions. It’s sad to hear about any type of payback from a judge.”

Palm Beach Post staff writer Bill Dipaolo contributed to this report.

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