TALLAHASSEE — A state investigative panel is questioning the impartiality of an outspoken Palm Beach County judge who frequently criticizes what he sees as racial bias in state laws, prosecutors and law enforcement.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission panel filed formal charges with the Florida Supreme Court on Oct. 31 alleging that Judge Barry M. Cohen has abused his position by using it as a “bully pulpit” and undermined his impartiality through his comments.
The panel cited Cohen's comments from the bench, in written orders and at public forums.
Cohen has been accused of saying, among other things, that minorities are disproportionally arrested and jailed for drug trafficking, law enforcement officers may be motivated by the race or status of suspects and blacks do not feel free to exercise their constitutional rights in the county.
The judge's lawyers linked the allegations against Cohen to recent attacks on the judiciary they say are threatening its independence.
“Judge Cohen will vigorously defend himself against allegations which infringe on the ability of judges to perform their duties in an independent manner,” wrote attorneys Scott Richardson and Donnie Murrell.
They added that Cohen is confident a full airing of the allegations “will demonstrate he has performed his duties ethically and honorably.”
For the first time, a political party this year took sides in an up-or-down retention election for Florida Supreme Court justices.
The Florida Republican Party opposed three justices who have angered the GOP with some of their decisions, hoping to defeat their merit retention so Republican Gov. Rick Scott could appoint replacements.
Cohen is a trial judge and does not face a retention election. Trial judges are elected in a popular vote and Cohen's seat was not on the ballot in this year's election.
The GOP-controlled Legislature also placed on the Nov. 6 ballot a proposed state
constitutional amendment that would give lawmakers more authority over the court system.
However, voters rejected the amendment.
Earlier this year, interim State Attorney Peter Antonacci, a Scott appointee, tried to get Cohen to step down from criminal cases. Antonacci made some of the same allegations raised by the Judicial Qualifications Commission.
The panel also cited a letter by Cohen that was published by the Palm Beach Post commenting on the qualifications of a candidate running for state attorney.
In another instance, while at a symposium, Cohen allegedly accused law enforcement of racial profiling and said laws are enforced in a discriminatory manner.
“In doing so you acknowledged that it was improper for you to speak in such a manner, and boasted that you had done so before,” the panel wrote.
Cohen can contest the allegations in writing and through a hearing.
The commission then can clear him or recommend a penalty, ranging from a reprimand to removal from office, to the Supreme Court, which has final authority.