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House panel takes aim at North Florida judge

House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee focused on Judge Andrew Decker's case

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A key House panel Tuesday used a judge accused of once throwing his law firm's clients "under the bus" --- and whose case has awaited action from the Florida Supreme Court for more than a year --- to highlight the chamber's dissatisfaction with how judicial wrongdoing is handled.

The House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee focused on the case of Judge Andrew Decker of Live Oak, the subject of an investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission for alleged wrongdoing as a lawyer before his 2014 election and as a candidate for the 3rd Judicial Circuit post.

In March 2015, the Judicial Qualifications Commission --- a panel that oversees judges --- recommended that Decker undergo a public reprimand and be suspended for 90 days without pay. Six months later, the Florida Supreme Court ordered Decker to show why he should not be removed from the bench.

After a trial in 2015, the Supreme Court has yet to resolve Decker's case, and the most recent documents in the case were filed a year ago.

Decker was accused of a conflict of interest while representing clients in foreclosure cases as an attorney and of, among other things, declaring that he was "pro-life" and Republican at campaign events before his election in 2014. The judge's lawyers maintained that his comments were "political speech" protected by the First Amendment.

The delay in resolution to Decker's case prompted the focus of the House committee, Chairman Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, said.

"The Supreme Court of Florida has been sitting on this case for over a year," he said, adding that his panel was "shedding a light on this today."

It's the second time the committee has targeted a sitting member of the judiciary under investigation. In the earlier instance, former Jacksonville Circuit Judge Mark Hulsey, accused of making racial and sexist slurs, resigned before the committee could begin impeachment proceedings.

The "public shaming" of a sitting member of the judicial branch --- even one under investigation --- is unnecessary, given the Legislature's ability to impeach judges, said Sandy D'Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association and former president of Florida State University.

"They can take action themselves. So any criticism about delay has got to be coupled with self-criticism," he told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday. "This whole thing just stinks to high heaven, and it strikes me that we have to search a long time to find any point to this, other than to embarrass people publicly."

Decker was not invited to Tuesday's hearing and, like other members of the public, had no idea who the subject of the committee's "case study of JQC proceeding" would be. The information was held under wraps until late Monday evening.

"When we're talking about informing our members, I don't want to see them have other sources of information informing them before they get it straight from the source, which is the JQC file," Metz told The News Service of Florida when asked about the secrecy.

Decker's lawyer Scott Tozian said he learned of the House inquiry into the judge after being contacted by a reporter after Tuesday's meeting.

"I had no idea," Tozian said.

Even one of the committee members --- Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican from Brevard County --- groused about what appeared to be a "public flogging" of a judge who did not have the opportunity to defend himself.

But Metz said the judge did not need to be notified because the committee was not taking any action on the matter.

"We're not voting on anything, so there's no reason to say we have to invite the judge to have an opportunity to rebut what's being presented because we're presenting from an existing file that's already been adjudicated," he said.

Decker may have been another poster-child case used by the House committee to highlight how the courts have fallen down on policing their own, an issue that may arise under the auspices of the Constitution Revision Commission over the next year.

"I wish they'd used somebody else to wage their war. I'd just like the court to render their decision …and not be dragged into some other issue between the Legislature and the judiciary," Tozian said in a telephone interview.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, made the judiciary a target even before he took over the reins of the chamber in November. Corcoran has pushed for judicial term limits and has publicly immolated the high court for majority decisions rejecting legislative actions, such as rulings last year on workers' compensation insurance