Florida: Chief judge presided over guardian’s divorce while judges take vacations together, Part 5

Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath, who presides over Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post) Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath, who presides over Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

The fifth in a series of articles from Florida’s Palm Beach Post, written by John Pacenti, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer, and produced by Kristyn Wellesley and Gurman Bhatia

Read Judge, wife benefit from frail seniors’ money, Part 1, here.

Read Judge’s history of debt: Foreclosures, IRS liens, Part 2, here.

Read Judge appears to routinely violate Florida Judicial Code of Conduct , Part 3, here.

Read Attorney – ‘Courts have allowed this culture’, Part 4, here.

Colin has been allowed to remain in probate under Peter Blanc and Jeffrey Colbath, chief judges since Savitt became a registered guardian four years ago. While other judges rotate, Colin hasn’t been moved out of the south county courthouse since at least 2008.

Blanc and Colbath, the current chief judge, presided separately over Savitt’s divorce and made rulings favorable to her.

Blanc said he worked in Colin’s law firm for about nine months as an “independent contractor.” He told The Post that when Savitt became a guardian there was some discussion about a potential conflict, but he felt satisfied not moving him out of probate because Colin vowed not to preside over any of her cases. The Post has not found any of Savitt’s cases where he did.

Chief Judge Colbath declined to answer questions for this story, but he has the power to move Colin to another division if he suspects impropriety.

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga in 2013 issued an administrative order to emphasize that the chief judges of circuit courts have the duty to take “corrective action as may be appropriate” if they feel a judge is acting inappropriately. Labarga declined to comment for this story.

Judges socialize, planned trip together

Judge Colin and his wife have socialized with one of the judges she appears in front of regularly, The Post has learned.

Colin and Circuit Judge David French eat lunch together nearly every day. Colin and French co-hosted a trivia night in May for the South Palm Beach Bar Association. The event was co-sponsored by Pankauski’s firm. French did not return repeated attempts for comment.

French’s first ex-wife Gayle Smith said her son, now grown, grew up in French’s household and knew Colin as his father’s running “mate” and that they often went on trips together.

French’s second ex-wife, Christine Connelly, said she and Judge French were friends with Colin and Savitt. The two couples had planned a cruise vacation about five years ago, but it fell through when Colin didn’t have his passport.

“We hung out, played tennis,” she said.

French apparently doesn’t always disclose this information to lawyers opposing Savitt in his courtroom on issues such as fees or her activities as a guardian.

Thomas Dougherty said he would have liked to have known that the judges socialized when he opposed Savitt in front of French.

Colin heads up elder-care pilot program

Any conflicts aside, Chief Judge Colbath has faith in Colin.

In September, Colbath announced an Eldercare Coordination Pilot Program headed by Colin to resolve family disputes in guardianship cases outside court will become permanent. The program is meant to decrease costs for families by bypassing attorneys and sending them to mediation.

Colin is excited.

“This pilot program is designed to put in place a conflict dispute mechanism that will allow guardians and family members to deal with nonlegal matters in a conference room setting and not in a courtroom …with less cost and tension,” he said.

Palm Beach County joined seven other circuits in Florida as well as Indiana, Minnesota, Idaho and Ohio in testing the program.

Are recusals enough to end conflict?

Attorney John Pankauski makes arguments before Judge David French during a hearing surrounding the guardianship of James Vassallo's father. (Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post)

Attorney John Pankauski makes arguments before Judge David French at the South County Courthouse Thursday, May 21, 2015, during a hearing surrounding the guardianship of James Vassallo’s father. (Damon Higgins/The Palm Beach Post)

In the courtroom, Colin is trying to shed any conflict, but a divorce case illustrates how treacherous it can become.

Amber Larkin accused her ex-husband, Andrew, of hiring trust attorney Pankauski because Andrew knew Colin would have to recuse himself. Judge Colin had indicated he would rule in her favor on a life insurance issue and even throw her husband in jail, according to court transcripts.

In addition to the recusal allegation, Pankauski was forced to defend himself on accusations that he was part of a strategy to get Colin recused.

The judge at a Sept. 29 hearing in the case explained why after four years he now recuses himself from cases involving his wife’s lawyers.

Colin said that requiring attorneys to disclose that they work for Savitt used to be “a 100 percent acceptable procedure” and that there had never been a complaint.

But Colin said automatic recusals assure there is a court record, so there is no question about whether opposing lawyers know of the potential conflict.

“We have adopted long-standing approved methods to properly deal with such potential conflicts,” he told The Post.

Colin’s previous policy may have been flawed. A 2005 opinion by the Supreme Court’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee said judges are the ones who are supposed to disclose.

This is not the first time Colin has been called out for conflict of interest. Complaints surfaced in 2009 about him favoring attorneys who represented Savitt in her divorce after he became a judge. Colin says he wasn’t punished. But the JQC can choose to reprimand a judge in private.

Colin was removed from the family division briefly and put into probate. Within two years, his wife was working as a professional guardian.

Despite his financial difficulties, Colin oversees divorce and probate cases in which he makes crucial rulings on money.

“By staying in the probate division, he put himself in a position to influence what work his wife gets,” said Jarvis, who teaches a class on professional responsibility. “In fact, having this many recusals shows that something is amiss. It is all just rationalization – he should have avoided putting himself in a position where he has had to recuse himself so often.”


To read this complete article (which we’ve broken up into 5 articles) online at the Palm Beach Post website, click here.