Live Oak —
The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) filed a notice of formal charges Tuesday against Third Judicial Circuit Judge Andrew J. Decker III for several violations of judicial canon and misconduct prior to being elected judge in November 2012. The charges will later be brought before a six member panel to determine if Decker did indeed violate 27 provisions including judicial canons, Florida Rules of Professional Conduct and Florida Statutes.
The bulk of the charges followed after the Florida Bar’s Third Judicial Circuit Grievance Committee found probable cause in early 2013 to support a landowner’s accusations of misconduct and conflict of interest against Decker.
The finding resulted from an eight-month investigation by the committee into Decker’s handling of a real estate foreclosure case as a private attorney before he was elected judge.
The misconduct and conflict accusations were made in spring 2012 by Daniel A. Dukes of Union County, a partner in the B.W.D. Land Trust represented by Decker in foreclosure negotiations with TD Bank. Other trust partners were Circuit Judge Paul S. Bryan of Lake City, and William E. Woodington of Union County.
Among other things, Dukes accused Decker of conspiring with Judge Bryan to transfer Duke’s one-third ownership of the foreclosed property to Judge Bryan, then withdrew as Duke’s attorney and later represented Judge Bryan in a bankruptcy filing.
He also accused Decker of representing clients before Judge Bryan without disclosing to the opposing side that Decker had served as Judge Bryan’s lawyer in other legal proceedings.
The Grievance Committee, which serves as a grand jury for complaints against Florida lawyers, found there was probable cause that Decker violated four of the Florida Bar’s rules on misconduct and conflict of interest.
The matter then went before the JQC which released its notice of formal charges Tuesday.
Even though the accusations against Decker occurred when he was a private attorney and not a judge, a spokeswoman for the Florida Bar said the Grievance Committee’s probable cause findings were submitted to the Judicial Qualifications Commission because Decker is now a judge.
The formal charges
Charge 1: According to the notice of formal charges, “On July 31, (Decker) participated in a televised debate with your opponent, Frederick J. Schutte...You stated during the debate that as a lawyer you had never been accused of having a conflict of interest or representing more than one side in a civil case. That was a false statement.”
Charge 2: On the campaign trail, Decker was noted many times stating he is a “committed Christian.” The document stated this injection of religious beliefs and statement that he “will be a Christian Judge and bring those values to my work every day,” in a campaign video, when taken as a whole, articulates a pledge or promise of future conduct that violates multiple provisions.
Charge 3: At a forum on June 11, 2012, Decker stated he had converted from the Democratic party to a Republican, and also announced his stance on abortion, being “pro-life.”
Charge 4: On June 30, 2012, Decker was identified as being affiliated with the Tea Party Executive Committee that he did not dispute, but embraced. He later injected political references in the invocation, stating, “we must get ‘those people’ out of Washington because they are not capable of running the country.”
Charge 5: The city of Jasper had an interest in buying property in which Bryan, Dukes and Woodington had an ownership interest in. At one time Decker represented all three owners. He later withdrew from representing Dukes and Woodington. He afterwards had a phone conversation with attorney Kris Robinson, Dukes’ new attorney, regarding the possibility of sale to the city of Jasper. At that time, there was a pending complaint that Dukes filed against Decker with the Florida Bar, claiming a conflict of interest. Decker is alleged having said, “I think we can do this, but I will expect the grievance to be dropped.”
Decker then asked Robinson to try to set up a meeting because he believed that if everyone could sit down together, the issue could be worked out. This conduct violates, if proven true, the policy of absolute immunity for complaints filed against lawyers.
Charge 6: Decker represented defendants Jean A. Cornell, Joan T. Cornell, and Option One Mortgage Corporation, against a foreclosure action brought by Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., represented by attorney Bart Valdes in Columbia County. This was not a routine foreclosure, and the case was assigned to Judge Bryan. In the same month, Decker began representing Bryan in defense of a separate suit labeled TD Bank, National Association v. Bryan, Woodington and Dukes, pending in Eighth Judicial Circuit in Bradford County.
“During this entire time, neither you nor Judge Bryan disclosed to Mr. Valdes the attorney/client relationship between Judge Bryan and you, and that you were representing Judge Bryan in another suit in another circuit,” the document stated.
Charge 7: Involving the B.W.D. issue.
Decker’s son, attorney Andrew J. Decker IV, spoke on his father’s behalf.
“For many months we have had discussions with the JQC in an effort to resolve this matter. While those discussions have been productive, at this time Judge Decker and the JQC have been unable to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution,” Decker IV wrote in an email. “While it is certainly disappointing, the JQC’s filing of formal allegations at this juncture come as no surprise. Judge Decker looks forward to addressing these allegations and will be filing an appropriate response with the Florida Supreme Court.”
Judge Decker has 20 days from Tuesday to file a response. According to JQC Executive
Director Brooke Kennerly, once a response is made, a hearing before a six member panel is held. After the hearing, the panel determines if the charges were proven true. If any or all are proven true, the matter then goes before the Florida Supreme Court, which then decides what course of action to take against Judge Decker. Kennerly said by phone Wednesday Judge Decker could face fines and penalties up to removal from office, depending on many variables.
Kennerly said if the six member panel finds nothing was violated, the charges are dropped. Kennerly stated the process of the matter going before a panel and the final outcome could take months.
Judge Decker is a judge in Florida’s Third Judicial Circuit which is comprised of Columbia, Dixie, Hamilton, Lafayette, Madison, Suwannee and Taylor counties. His current assignments are handling cases in Hamilton and Madison counties. He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1979 and was first elected judge in November 2012. Prior to his judgeship, Judge Decker ran a successful law firm in Live Oak, which his family still operates.