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Florida's Highest Court Removes Broward Circuit Judge

Laura Marie Watson

The Florida Supreme Court has ordered that Broward Circuit Judge Laura Marie Watson be removed from the bench, saying in an opinion that her actions as a practicing attorney were “fundamentally inconsistent” with the responsibilities of being a judge.

The ruling stems from allegations of professional misconduct by Judge Watson in a complex series of personal injury cases in 2002.

Watson and other lawyers represented a group of healthcare providers who alleged that Progressive Insurance Company had systematically underpaid them on insurance claims. Watson’s firm ultimately settled the case for $14.5 million without involving the other set of lawyers or clients. The other lawyers subsequently sued Watson’s team and won.

The Florida Bar opened an investigation into Watson’s conduct in 2012. However, when she was elected to the the 17th Circuit Court in November of that year, jurisdiction for the case shifted to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, an independent agency that investigates alleged misconduct by Florida’s judges. After carrying out an investigation, the JQC recommended that Watson be removed from the bench—a recommendation with which the Florida Supreme Court agreed last week.

Anthony Alfieri, a law professor and Director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami School of Law, said the JQC made a “fair and exhaustive record” of Watson’s conduct, which included violations of “approximately a dozen Florida Rules of Professional Conduct.” 

Those violations included insufficient communication with clients, inappropriate negotiation of fee agreements and multiple conflicts of interest.

Mike Schneider, executive director of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, said that the findings and the recommendations that the JQC’s investigative panel made—and that the Supreme Court confirmed—“were appropriate.”

Watson’s lawyer, Robert Sweetapple, said in an emailed statement that he anticipated filing a motion for a rehearing. He said the misconduct occurred several years before Watson was elected into office.

“Notably,” he said, “not a single client complained or testified against Judge Watson. In essence, the Court is simply substituting its view of Judge Watson’s character for that of the electorate, which voted her into office despite knowledge of the conduct at issue.”

In the past five years, the Florida Supreme Court has only ordered two other judges removed.

The court’s decision is not final until the time to request a rehearing has expired. Karen Kirksey, a spokesperson for the Florida Bar, said that once the decision does become final, “the Bar will revisit [Watson’s] status as a member.”

Membership in the Florida Bar is a requirement to practice law in the state.

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