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Making a professionalism panel referral doesn’t trigger automatic recusal

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'The trial court judge here did no more than laudably fulfill her obligation to promote decorum by reporting unprofessionalism'

Law Scales of JusticeThe mere fact that a judge refers a lawyer to a local professionalism panel doesn’t automatically disqualify the trial court judge from presiding over the case in question, according to the Second District Court of Appeal.

The three-judge panel acted May 27 in Case No. 2D21-3577.

In short, a litigant asserted that he would not receive a fair trial because the judge stated during a discovery hearing that the litigant’s counsel “seemed unnecessarily angry” and subsequently referred the lawyer to the Hillsborough County Local Professionalism Panel for assistance in anger management and counseling in professionalism. According to litigant, the referral has resulted in a “well-founded fear” that the judge does not trust his counsel and will now look “with suspicion” on every position that counsel takes.

The court disagreed.

“Although [the litigant] equates the referral of his counsel to a local professionalism panel for discourtesy with a challenge to his counsel’s integrity or ethics, we emphasize that they are not the same,” the court said. “The judges of this state have a responsibility to promote courtesy and professionalism in their courts. The Florida Code of Judicial Conduct mandates that judges ‘participate in establishing, maintaining, and enforcing high standards of conduct,’ ‘require order and decorum in proceedings before the judge,’ and require lawyers subject to their discretion and control to be ‘patient, dignified, and courteous.’”

Accordingly, the Second DCA said, a trial court judge may refer a lawyer perceived as discourteous to a local professionalism panel without concern that he or she, by that action alone, will be subject to disqualification, citing Cf. 5-H Corp. v. Padovano, 708 So. 2d 244, 248 (Fla. 1997) (“[A] Florida judge’s mere reporting of perceived attorney unprofessionalism to The Florida Bar, in and of itself, is legally insufficient to support judicial disqualification.”).

To be sure, the court said, a judge who questions the veracity or ethics of a party or counsel may be subject to disqualification, depending on the unique facts of the case.

“But even accepting [the litigant’s] factual allegations as true, the trial court judge here did no more than laudably fulfill her obligation to promote decorum by reporting unprofessionalism.

Judges LaRose, Lucas, and Rothstein-Youakim concur in the per curiam decision.

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