WEST PALM BEACH – A case like that of a Palm Beach County assistant public defender battling professional misconduct allegations is exceptionally rare but it’s not unheard of in more conventional channels, a Miami attorney said during a recent interview.
"The Ramsey matter seems odd at first blush," Dorothy Easley of the law firm Easley Appellate Practice in Miami said in an email interview with the Florida Record. "It is not unprecedented. And there are cases where appellate courts will also refer attorneys to the Florida Bar for litigation misconduct or lack of candor observed during an appeal. Attorneys are aware that any misconduct on their part may be referred to the Florida Bar to answer for. Attorneys also understand that contempt is one of the court mechanisms to compel respect for court orders and the judicial system."
What makes the case rare is that that Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Jack Schramm Cox chose in December not to report his allegations of criminal contempt of court against an assistant public defender Elizabeth Ramsey to the Florida Bar. Instead, he followed a judicial procedure that Florida Bar officials have said hadn't been used in a quarter century.
Judge Cox claimed Ramsey violated a Nov. 30 order that banned anyone, including a Palm Beach newspaper, from using or printing transcripts of information provided by accused jailhouse snitch Frederick Cobia. Cobia was supposed to have received a murder confession from Ramsey's client, Jamal Smith.
Smith is accused in the 2011 shooting death of 24-year-old Lake Worth resident Kemar Kino Clayton.
Ramsey, an attorney with 25 years' experience, appealed to the 4th District Court of Appeal that Cox not be the judge to hear the contempt charges against her. On March 2, the appeal court ruled in Ramsey's favor, disqualifying Cox from hearing the misdemeanor case. Circuit Judge Catherine Brunson has since been assigned to hear the complaint.
The 4th District also threw out the order that prohibited use or publication of Cobia’s recorded jailhouse phone calls.
Attorney Donnie Murrell, who is representing Ramsey in the contempt charge, was not available for comment but has been quoted saying the charges against Ramsey are groundless. If convicted, Ramsey, 51, could be sentenced to up to five months and 29 days in Palm Beach County Jail.
Cox declared a mistrial to postpone Smith's trial in January and has since recused himself from presiding over that case, a decision that is not unusual in a case where there may be perception of judicial bias, Easley said. "It does not reflect corruption, but rather it is a mechanism for protecting the integrity of the judicial system and removing any perceptions that might be out there of bias," she said.
Members of the public may not see a recusal in that light, Easley said.
"One can understand why the public might be surprised by this turn of events," she said. "It helps to understand that there are several long-standing principles running through the case law overall of which the public may not be aware. The first is protecting due process in an already over-burdened court system due to budget cuts. When a trial judge enters an order, the order is to be followed. If the order is in any way ambiguous, the solution is to ask the trial court for clarification. Not to exceed the order and hope the attorney’s interpretation was a correct one."
Meanwhile, the appeal court decision to throw out the order Ramsey is accused violating may not help her case, Easley said. "The fact that a court order is in error is not a defense to contempt proceedings," Easley said. "The remedy for an erroneous order is to appeal that order and have the appellate court say it's in error. In this case, the 4th District Court of Appeal apparently did agree that the underlying order was erroneous, but it is for the courts to speak on that, not for attorneys to not respect the orders with which the attorneys disagree."
For this and other reasons, the eventual outcome of the contempt charges remains in doubt, Easley said. "I cannot comment on the merits of the case, because I frankly don't know the details," she said. "But it does appear that this case will continue to get high publicity while it processes through the court system. It is interesting and not run of the mill. I think the court is going to look at the clarity of the order, or lack thereof, what the attorneys genuinely understood to be the order's scope, the violation of the order and its impact here, and the court will consider the evidence and follow the law on contempt."