Broward Circuit Judge Laura Marie Watson continued to defend herself Tuesday against ethics charges stemming from the settlement of a civil suit in 2004.
Watson is accused of misconduct by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which polices conduct by judges and has the authority to issue anything from a reprimand to a recommendation for removal from office. Watson was elected in 2012.
But the issues being reviewed began a decade earlier, when Watson was in private practice. Watson was part of a legal team that sued Progressive Insurance in 2002 over nonpayment of personal injury claims. Her clients were doctors who accused Progressive of nonpayment of claims. Other plaintiffs, represented by other lawyers, were doctors who accused the insurance company of operating in bad faith.
According to the official JQC complaint, Watson's law firm negotiated a settlement with Progressive that froze out the "bad faith" plaintiffs.
Though surrounded by a team of lawyers, Watson chose to make her own opening statement to a JQC panel at the Broward County Courthouse on Monday morning. As she has since the ethics charges were initially filed last August, Watson went on the offensive, accusing the JQC of allowing itself to be used as a collection agency for attorneys that had a dispute with her firm.
"A lawyer should not be able to use this important tribunal for such a purpose," she said.
She also said she was personally cleared of wrongdoing in a civil suit in 2008, though her firm was found to have enriched itself improperly.
Watson was on the stand Tuesday morning, answering a slew of questions about the Progressive settlement and its impact on her clients. She described the deal as complex and detailed, but insisted she breached no ethical rules or laws.
Members of the panel were permitted to ask questions, with some focusing on whether Watson actually agreed to represent Progressive against her own clients if the settlement were to be challenged after it was accepted. Watson explained that when parties settle a lawsuit, the plaintiffs are typically expected not to pursue further action.
Watson has said that the JQC is not the body that should be investigating a claim of misconduct that allegedly took place so long ago. The case was initially investigated by the Florida Bar in 2012.
But the Bar has no jurisdiction over sitting judges, so when Watson was elected, the Bar's case was dropped. The JQC picked up the case last year.
Watson's hearing will continue Wednesday. The case is being overseen by 5th District Court of Appeal Judge Kerry Evander.
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