Latest survey of Palm Beach County lawyers gives high marks to oft-criticized county judge

1:09 p.m Friday, Oct. 25, 2013 Local

Six months after he agreed to accept a public reprimand from the Florida Supreme Court for espousing his political views from the bench, Palm Beach County Court Judge Barry Cohen on Wednesday got rave reviews from those who arguably know him best: lawyers.

In the Palm Beach County Bar Association’s bi-annual poll of its members, Cohen scored top marks among his 18 fellow county court judges. And, while the way the survey is conducted makes comparisons difficult, he was rated as one of the county’s top jurists, including 34 circuit court judges.

Cohen’s ratings were well-deserved, said Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath. “It’s what those of us who work with him in the trenches have always known,” he said.

The 63-year-old jurist, who has long been popular among lawyers, was criticized in May 2012 by then-State Attorney Pete Antonacci. He claimed Cohen regularly blasted police for racial profiling and prosecutors for bringing minor cases to trial.

While he survived that challenge, the Judicial Qualifications Commission, responding to an anonymous complaint that included many of the examples Antonacci cited, found that Cohen may have violated judicial canons. In April, Cohen admitted he wrongly used his bench as a bully pulpit and agreed to accept a public reprimand. His case is pending.

In two categories that got him into trouble — judicial demeanor and impartiality — only one of the 67 attorneys who evaluated him found him wanting. In three other categories — knowledge of the law, preparedness and punctuality — nearly all of those who reviewed him gave him “excellent” ratings. His worst rating was for control of the courtroom where three lawyers said he needs improvement.

The poll has long been controversial among judges. Some say it’s just a popularity contest. But, Colbath said, it has merit.

“For me, it’s a valuable tool,” he said. If he receives a sizable portion of “needs improvement” votes in any of nine categories, he said he weighs his behavior. “I ask myself: ‘Is there a lesson to be learned there?’ And, I say, ‘yes,’ ” he said.

Like Colbath, other judges have said they take survey results to heart. Circuit Judge Timothy McCarthy, who this year switched from civil to family court, put a sticky note on the bench with the number “115” on it. The note was a reminder that of the 197 lawyers who evaluated him in 2011, 115 said his demeanor needed improvement. This year, 78 of the 142 lawyers who rated him said it’s something he still needs to work on.

Circuit judges who received good scores include: Glenn Kelley, Meenu Sasser, Richard Oftedal and Charles Burton. Those who received a large number of “needs improvement” ratings were: McCarthy, Catherine Brunson, Diana Lewis and Sandra McSorley.

County judges who joined Cohen at the top included: Daliah Weiss, Paul Damico and Sandra Boss-Pardo. Those who got low marks: Marni Bryson and Peter Evans.

Editor’s Note: Because of a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Palm Beach County Court Judge Mark Eissey got low ratings in a recent poll of lawyers by the Palm Beach County Bar Association. In fact, Eissey was among the top-rated county court judges. Of the 46 lawyers who evaluated him in nine categories, most gave him excellent or satisfactory ratings.