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A judge slammed for being a no-show at work for years is giving up her fight against misconduct charges in a potentially career-saving deal with state overseers.
Palm Beach County Judge Marni Bryson struck an agreement with the Judicial Qualifications Commission calling for a $37,500 fine, a 10-day suspension without pay, and a public reprimand over her admittedly “poor attendance.”
The terms revealed Friday now go to the Florida Supreme Court, which can either accept or reject the recommended punishments that the JQC says are in “the interests of justice.”
Until now, Bryson had vehemently denied any wrongdoing and insisted she worked her butt off while battling serious health problems and coping with life as a single mother to a young son.
But the judge, assigned to a civil court division, now acknowledges she failed to put in the necessary time on the bench and did a disservice to the public.
“She admits that her attendance at the courthouse fell below what is reasonably expected of a trial judge and had the potential to damage the public’s perception of the judiciary in a way that cannot be easily cured,” wrote Judge Michelle Morley, who heads the JQC’s investigative panel.
Both Bryson and her lawyers declined to comment on the settlement, which notes that the judge’s “attendance has improved” since the charges were filed in April, and these days she also tells her boss when she needs to take days off.
Bryson, paid a $156,377 annual salary, was first elected in 2010 and like most jurists has a mix of supporters and critics.
The charges accused Bryson of failing “to devote full time and attention” to her court responsibilities from 2016 to 2019, as well as not notifying the chief judge about her absences over the same period. These are violations of state and county judicial rules.
“The physical location of a judge says nothing about how much work he or she is doing, or whether the judge is fully devoted to his or her judicial duties,” Bryson’s lawyers argued in May.
While outlining the recommended discipline on Thursday, Morley wrote that the JQC is “mindful” about remote work, yet, “The Commission also expects that a judge serving in a trial-level court be generally present at the courthouse during normal court hours.”
The judge’s accusers said they had the witnesses and evidence to prove she was too often missing and not properly accounting for her time.
Judges in Palm Beach County are typically limited to 30 vacation days per year, plus unspecified time off for illnesses, judicial education programs, and military leave.
All judges in the state are expected to abide by a requirement stating: “The judicial duties of a judge take precedence over all the judge’s other activities.” This means that a judge is expected to schedule their vacation days around their court duties, according to a 2004 state judicial ethics opinion.
An investigation revealed Bryson was absent for more days than her allotted leave time.
“On most of those occasions, she failed to properly notify or make coverage arrangements with court management,” wrote Morley, a circuit judge based in Sumter County. “There were also some days when Judge Bryson was in the courthouse for less than a full workday.”
Judge Bryson was also knocked for showing up late to work on occasion, as her tardiness “inconvenienced litigants, lawyers, and citizens.”
In reaching the agreement with Bryson, the Commission said it “balanced the evidence of Judge Bryson’s poor attendance against other evidence” that mitigated the violations. That is, Bryson would have been approved for some time off had she just asked, she volunteered to handle felony criminal cases, and she volunteered for extra night and weekend duty, as well as performing other administrative work.
Bryson, in the settlement, now says she regrets the times she kept people waiting for her in the courtroom.
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By making peace with the JQC, Bryson ended what was shaping up to be a bruising fight. Her lawyers recently suggested the judicial commission’s integrity may have been compromised by a leak of confidential information about her case.
They also questioned whether now-retired Chief Circuit Judge Krista Marx — a former head of the JQC — filed the work absences complaint against Bryson and then improperly shared information about it.
Henry M. Coxe III, special counsel for the JQC, wrote on July 30 that the innuendos about Marx weren’t true, as Marx wasn’t involved with the investigation of Bryson that led to the charges.
The Palm Beach County National Organization for Women, joined by Families Against Court Travesties, Inc., have stood behind Bryson and blasted what they see as trumped-up charges. The groups said the complaint against Bryson was filed as a response to her suing Fort Lauderdale lawyer William Scherer. Bryson accuses Scherer of interfering in her child-custody case against her former husband.
“We need more judges like Marni Bryson,” said Sheila Jaffe, vice president of the county NOW chapter, after hearing about the settlement. “It is extraordinarily difficult to be a single mother and a professional.”