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Two judges leaving 1st District Court of Appeal

TALLAHASSEE — Two of the 15 judges on the long-troubled 1st District Court of Appeal are leaving the bench after more than 20 years on the court.

Judge Charles J. Kahn Jr., 59, is leaving to accept appointment as a federal magistrate in Pensacola. Judge Peter D. Webster, 62, will return to private practice. Both were appointed to the court in 1991 by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Kahn survived a Judicial Qualifications Commission investigation after 13 of his fellow judges filed a complaint against him in 2006. He was accused of sexually harassing women at the court and in the court administrator's office. The accusations surfaced after other judges forced him to resign from the chief judge's job.

Kahn won a merit retention vote for another six-year term in November with 53 percent, the lowest percentage recorded for a Florida judge since merit retention began 32 years ago.

Webster has remained free of controversy at a court where judges have been investigated by the JQC three times in five years.

The court hears appeals of all cases in 32 North Florida counties, plus all workers' compensation appeals and most lawsuits involving the state.

The latest investigation focuses on the $50 million "Taj Mahal'' courthouse the judges built for themselves in the midst of a budget crisis. State auditors say some of the judges illegally seized control of the planning and construction process and cost the state's taxpayers millions of extra dollars for posh furnishings like African mahogany, granite countertops and kitchens and bathrooms for every judge.

Webster will join the Tallahassee office of Carlton Fields, a Tampa-based law firm that also has offices in St. Petersburg, Atlanta, Miami, Orlando and West Palm Beach.

Webster said he believes the time is right to leave. He declined to talk about problems at the appellate court. Kahn also declined to comment.

Kahn has been at odds with some fellow judges since 2006 when he presided over a criminal appeal filed by former state Senate President W.D. Childers. Kahn wanted to overturn the conviction and chaired a panel that voted 2-1 to exonerate Childers. But the full court voted 10-4 to uphold the conviction.

An opinion written by Judge Michael E. Allen questioned Kahn's ethics, saying perception of the court would suffer because Kahn previously practiced law with Pensacola lawyer Fred Levin, a close associate and sometime attorney for Childers.

Webster played a key role in trying to quell the dispute before Allen's opinion became public. In an e-mail, he urged the judges to "return to maturity, civility and sanity" and suggested the court should not "further wallow in the mud in this case."

Levin's son, Martin, filed a JQC complaint against Allen, who was found guilty of conduct unbecoming a judge for writing the opinion. He received a public reprimand from the Florida Supreme Court and has since resigned.

About the same time, Kahn was forced to resign as chief judge when 13 of his fellow judges, including Webster, voted to file a JQC complaint charging Kahn with sexually harassing women. The JQC ultimately took no action against Kahn.

Kahn was appointed to the magistrate's job by federal judges in the Northern District of Florida. They include Senior District Judge Lacey Collier of Pensacola, who was president of a maritime commission involved last year in a case at the 1st District. Kahn and two other judges ruled that Florida citizens have no right to speak at public meetings. Collier resigned from the board about two weeks after the court heard oral arguments in the case.

Last month, Collier said he did not realize Kahn participated in the ruling.

Two judges leaving 1st District Court of Appeal 02/27/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 28, 2011 11:19am]
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