Broward Chief Judge Victor Tobin's reign at the top of the county's judiciary has been filled with conflicts, from barbs he traded with the court clerk to fighting the public's distaste for a new courthouse. Now he's leaving, and the firm he picked as his next successor likely won't make his life any less controversial.
Tobin announced in an email to fellow judges and their employees last night that he'll be leaving the bench June 30 and heading to the law firm of Marchall C. Watson. The firm is one of the state's largest foreclosure mills and has been under criticism
for months over the way it handles documents.
During an Attorney General's Office investigation into the firm, a Watson attorney admitted that lawyers there regularly signed affidavits without the required notary present in order to move paperwork more quickly. In March, Watson agreed to pay the state $2 million to end the AG's investigation.
Watson still faces an open inquiry into a complaint filed with the Florida Bar. And Watson was also under fire this week in a St. Petersburg courtroom when a foreclosure judge there ordered firm founder Marshall C. Watson himself to show up and explain problems with his firm's filing documents.
As part of the settlement with the AG's office, Watson agreed to a list of changes meant to correct problems at the firm. Tobin will come in at a time when the firm is looking to regain its credibility in the legal community.
Update: Tobin says his role with Watson will be to assure the firm is "making sure its best practices are proper" and that the firm is conducting cases ethically. "The law firm is very interested in having their best practices and ethics implemented, and my role will be to assure that's happening and make corrections if necessary."
Tobin returned my call quickly, but he doesn't have the best history with reporters -- he once shouted down Sun-Sentinel columnist Michael Mayo and told him to "go out and get a real job." As reporters do, Mayo had the last laugh with writing a piece titled "Broward chief judge is failing leadership test."
That fight with Mayo was one of many political battles Tobin fought during his tenure. That's to his credit -- whether you agreed with Tobin or not, and the Pulp often didn't, he was sure willing to fight for what he believed.
The most vocal of his public arguments was with Clerk of Courts Howard Forman. Tobin accused the clerk of mismanaging paperwork and general malfeasance. If you've been to the Broward courthouse, it's hard to disagree -- getting documents is often more difficult than it should be, especially compared to the well organized courthouse in Palm Beach County. But unfortunately Tobin seems to have lost that two-year battle; the courthouse is still often a chaotic source of misplaced documents.
Tobin also championed a new courthouse to replace the often-leaking building on the New River. His support came despite voters shooting down the idea and widespread complaints that the courthouse construction, which will begin as early as later this year, had become too political. It's hard to look at the gleaming building on the banks of the river and think we need a new one, but you also have to appreciate Tobin fighting popular opinion for something he thought would help courthouse employees.
Tobin said he didn't believe the fights he had fought while chief judge were "too controversial" -- he said he still speaks regularly with Forman. "It's my job as chief judge to advocate on behalf of the bench. These are things that a chief judge in any district ought to advocate for."
In announcing his decision to leave, Tobin kept his letter to Gov. Rick Scott short. His email to employees was equally brief:
Late this afternoon, I notified Governor Scott that I would be resigning as a Circuit Court Judge effective June 30, 2011. Effective July 1, 2011, I will return to private practice with the Law Offices of Marshall C. Watson. I wish to express my sincere thanks to each judge for permitting me the honor of being your Chief Judge during the last four years. I appreciate the confidence you placed in me.
Tobin's replacement, Judge Peter Weinstein, might be the type to keep up Tobin's history of political confrontations. He's said to be something of a charmer who can also play hardball when needed.