Bar Talk

A nasty race for judge in Palm Beach County may come down to a piece of paper.

That paper is the 2013 Palm Beach County Bar poll. Every odd-numbered year, the Bar asks members to rate the county’s judges in nine categories: Knowledge & Application of the Law, Impartiality, Diligence and Preparedness, Judicial Demeanor & Courtesy to Lawyers, Control of Courtroom, Case Management, Punctuality & Timeliness in Rendering Rulings & Decisions, Common Sense and Enforcement of Standards of Professionalism. Lawyers can give judges an E (Excellent), S (Satisfactory) or N (Needs Improvement.) Lawyer Jessica Ticktin is using the most recent poll to make her case against Diana Lewis, who was elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2008.

Ticktin says, correctly, that Lewis’ ratings are awful. In fact, Lewis’ cumulative rating is the worst of all 34 circuit court judges, the ones who hear felony cases, complex civil cases and family law cases, and also handle foreclosures and probate. Some attorneys and judges dismiss the results because lawyers can respond anonymously and because the ratings may depend on which and how many lawyers respond. Lewis, though, drew the most responses of any circuit judge—216—just as she drew the most responses in 2009 and 2011.

As in those earlier polls, Lewis got her worst marks when it came to how she (mis)treats lawyers. Of the 212 who graded Lewis on Judicial Demeanor, an astonishing 147 gave her a Needs Improvement. That’s almost 70 percent. The only one close was Tim McCarthy, another well-known hothead whose temper just caused the 4th District Court of Appeal to reverse him because he popped during a testy divorce hearing.

Lewis is afflicted with “black-robe syndrome,” a professional personality disorder. Whether out of insecurity, arrogance, meanness or a combination of all three, such judges bully lawyers, knowing that the lawyers can’t really fight back without risking a contempt of court charge. During more than two decades of interviewing judicial candidates for The Palm Beach Post, the hardest part was trying to assess whether an aspiring judge might get “black-robe syndrome” once on the bench.

You might be able to excuse Lewis if she was good on the law. Problem is, roughly half of the respondents also rated her Needs Improvement on Impartiality and Common Sense. Lewis was ranked less awful on how she applies the law, but her score still was among the lowest.

Or you could argue that if Lewis survives this race—Ticktin has loaned herself $200,000, meaning Ticktin will spend a lot for a judicial campaign—she will get better, if only to head off another challenge in 2020. Problem is, Lewis survived a scare in 2008—getting less than 52 percent of the vote—and has gotten no better. In 2009, about 59 percent of the lawyers who responded gave Lewis a Needs Improvement on temperament. In 2011, it was 73 percent. Nor has Lewis improved in other categories.

My experience is that the Bar poll usually rates the good judges higher and the mediocre-to-bad judges lower. And you don’t have to be rude to run an efficient courtroom and be a good judge. Robin Rosenberg, the former county judge whom the Senate just confirmed to a seat on the federal bench, got only seven Needs Improvement on temperament from 148 lawyers in the 2013 poll. She got an Excellent from 116. The last two chief judges, Peter Blanc and Jeffrey Colbath, also were near the top in temperament.

To those who don’t understand judicial politics, Lewis would seem like an easy target. But good candidates are reluctant to run for judge, given the uncertainty, and they are leery of taking on an incumbent and losing, given the possibility for revenge. Obviously, that possibility is especially real in Lewis’ case.

So voters get Jessica Ticktin, who works at her father’s personal injury firm in Deerfield Beach—she lives in Delray Beach—and never has handled a trial case. Most of the law firms and lawyers who give regularly to judicial candidates support Lewis. Of course, the county’s legal establishment also supported Art Wroble when he ran uncontested in 2000. Wroble turned out be a nice guy but a terrible judge, and the establishment helped to defeat him after one term.

Palm Beach County has been comparatively lucky. Broward and Miami-Dade are rat’s nests of politics when it comes to picking judges, and it shows. One Broward judge just pleaded no contest to being drunk in the courthouse parking lot—at 8 a.m. But because Palm Beach County’s leading lawyers and law firms involve themselves in judicial elections much more than the public, they must do more than give the public the lousy choice of Diana Lewis or Jessica Ticktin.

Entertainment venue?

There’s an interesting item on Boca Raton’s update of what the city calls its “Action Agenda.”

Boca Raton owns land east of the Spanish River Boulevard library. On the city’s action plan is a proposal to develop the site as an “entertainment venue.” The item isn’t new; according to the document, it’s been under discussion since December. But I don’t remember hearing about it.

Nothing will happen soon. The city’s priority remains closing a deal to allow a Houston’s restaurant on the Wildflower site at East Palmetto Park Road and Fifth Avenue. There is supposed to be an update next month about negotiations with the potential buyer.

One does wonder, though, what sort of “entertainment venue” Boca Raton might consider for the library land —especially since the city now runs the Mizner Park Amphitheater. Would the city compete against itself?

Slimed

You may have read that residents of Toledo, Ohio, had to use bottled water when their city’s supply was contaminated. The source of the toxin was an algae bloom in Lake Erie. If you scoffed about primitive conditions in the nation’s Rust Belt, don’t get so smug. That same thing happened here not long ago.

In 2000, residents of the Glades communities found that their drinking water—drawn from Lake Okeechobee—contained dangerous levels of carcinogens called trihalomethanes. The toxin formed when chlorine at the water plant reacted with organic material in the lake water. A factor was the backpumping of water from sugar fields into the lake, at the behest of growers who wanted drained fields. The levels of carcinogens tracked with the amount of backpumping.

The eventual solution was a new, $58 million regional water plant for Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay. Taxpayers throughout the county subsidize the plant. It was another indication of how much environmental damage sugar farming can do. Routine backpumping supposedly was stopped in 2007, but in emergencies the farmers still may ask for and get new chances to make Lake Okeechobee more like Lake Erie. That’s the sort of political clout they have.

Puppy mill matters

The issue isn’t as big as “sober houses,” but Delray Beach faces the same legal challenge in deciding whether to ban the retail sale of dogs and cats.

This year, the city considered a ban, but the legal staff cautioned that Delray Beach could face a lawsuit. Unlike some cities that don’t have retail animal sellers and passed a ban to keep them out, Delray Beach does have such a retailer—Waggs to Riches, on East Atlantic Avenue. Dog and cat retailers in other parts of the country have sued at least three local governments, challenging such bans.

So last week, the Delray Beach City Commission passed on reading a six-month moratorium that would keep out new dog or cat retailers. During that time, the city’s legal staff would do research to determine what kind of ordinance might stand up.

Delray and other cities have faced a similar legal difficulty in trying to regulate sober houses, transitional drug and alcohol rehab facilities. Substance abuse is covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act, so local governments must prove that they aren’t just targeting recovering addicts, no matter how many patients these facilities churn through and dump back onto the street.

Puppy mills are a problem. Unlike individuals, who are limited in how many puppies they can breed, the unregulated mills—most of them in Missouri and Kansas—churn out the dogs, especially the boutique breeds. In 2010, the owner of Waggs to Riches said she doesn’t use puppy mills. Supporters of retail bans say government can put the mills out of business by discouraging demand. And with other cities in Palm Beach County having passed bans, one worry is that stores could gravitate to Delray Beach.

Delray being Delray, of course, politics gets into even this issue. Commissioners Adam Frankel and Al Jacquet opposed the moratorium, asking why it was necessary when there’s just one store. Frankel implied that the commission should be helping new businesses. Jacquet said the moratorium would upset the free market. Seriously?

Also, in April the owner of Waggs to Riches, Kim Curler, sued Commissioner Shelly Petrolia—she, Mayor Carey Glickstein and Commissioner Jordana Jarjura voted for the moratorium—for allegedly defaming her business. That happened during the commission’s first discussion of the issue. A judge threw out the lawsuit, but Curler amended and refiled it. A hearing is scheduled for Monday.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.