Is Judge-Elect Laura Marie Watson fit for the bench?

The findings against Broward Circuit Judge-Elect Laura Marie Watson are serious and University of Miami law professor Tony Alfieri says they could warrant suspension before she gets on the bench in January.

But that's going to depend solely on the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which doesn't even have jurisdiction over Watson until she is sworn in on January 8.

The allegations and findings against Watson, whom voters chose over Julio Gonzalez on November 6, include misrepresenting clients, conflicts of interest, and cutting a fellow attorney, Miami's Larry Stewart, out of his fees earned on the case. 

It all stems from a civil case involving Progressive Insurance in which Watson was representing health care providers claiming the company hadn't paid claims.

The Florida Bar found probable cause that Watson had violated Bar rules in the case on October 22 -- about two weeks before the election. But that didn't surface until last week, leaving voters in the dark about the Bar's ruling.

Stewart, who didn't respond to requests for comment, sued Watson and her firm alleging he'd been cheated out of fees on the case. The trial court then found that Watson had helped to engineer a "secret" $14.5 million settlement with Progressive "which resulted in the defendants receiving over $10 million in attorney's fees and plaintiffs receiving only $420,000 in fees," according to an appellate ruling on the case. Watson's firm's cut of the settlement was $4 million. 

The trial court also ruled that Watson and other defendants owed Stewart nearly $1 million in fees. That judgment remains outstanding while Watson appeals to the Florida Supreme Court, but the appellate court upheld the trial court's ruling earlier this year.

The court also found that Watson inflated the amount of work she put on the case.

"Laura Watson claimed that she spent 7,200 hours on the Progressive PIP cases, which would be over 34 hours per week for over four years," wrote Palm Beach Circuit Judge David Crow.  "But the Watson law firm Scheduling Calendar shows that for most of the time less than 50% of her scheduled
items involved the Progressive claims. In addition, the case data that Laura Watson produced during the underlying Goldcoast case showed the Watson law firm averaged less than now claimed in attorney fees per claim on its Progressive cases."

Ultimately it will be the JQC who will determine if Watson is fit for the bench. I'll update with developments in the case.