2013-11-21 / Top News

Chief judge follows a family tradition in courtroom

BY EUNICE BAROS
Special to Florida Weekly


In October, Judge Jeffrey Colbath denied a request by Wellington polo club founder John Goodman to move his retrial. 
COURTESY OF WPBF In October, Judge Jeffrey Colbath denied a request by Wellington polo club founder John Goodman to move his retrial. COURTESY OF WPBF Palm Beach County’s Chief Judge Jeff Colbath recalls when he was in the trenches as a young, vigorous assistant state attorney 30 years ago, chasing an escaping defendant out of the courtroom.

As the man was being handcuffed after sentencing, the defendant knocked down the bailiff and fled Judge James Carlisle’s courtroom, remembers Judge Colbath, whose 59 colleagues voted him the 15th Judicial Circuit’s chief judge July 1 for a two-year term.

“I chased him around the top floor of the old courthouse and into the stairwell,” he said. “ I caught up with him between two floors and dove onto his back and we both fell a half a flight of stairs together and slammed onto the landing — me on top, he cushioning my fall.”

The assistant state attorney was holding the defendant for “dear life with a bear hug,” and then, “a clutch of deputies arrived. It was exciting and kind of fun ... at least a break from the normal routine,” says Judge Colbath.


Judge Jeffrey Colbath comes from a long line of members of the legal profession. His father was a judge, his grandfather a bailiff. He oversaw the John Goodman trial. 
COURTESY PHOTO Judge Jeffrey Colbath comes from a long line of members of the legal profession. His father was a judge, his grandfather a bailiff. He oversaw the John Goodman trial. COURTESY PHOTO Judge Colbath, 56, has had anything but the normal jurist routine, particularly during the last two years on the bench presiding over the highly publicized, complicated DUI manslaughter trial of polo club owner John Goodman in the 2010 death of Scott Wilson, and the subsequent pending contempt charges against one of those jurors for misconduct. The case continues into 2014, after Judge Colbath granted the defendant a new trial, and he awaits the doctors’ competency reports on the juror, who now faces a jail sentence if convicted. The case came to him in routine blind filing.

Jeff Colbath grew up in northern Palm Beach County and graduated from Palm Beach Gardens High School. He earned a criminal justice degree at the University of South Florida in Tampa in 1979 and his law degree in 1982 from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. After working for the state attorney here, he handled civil cases for Adams Coogler Watson and Merkel and then with Davis Carroll Colbath and Isaacs in West Palm Beach. He met his wife, Maryann, a schoolteacher, at a wedding. She was on the bride’s side; he on the groom’s. They have two adult children and have been married for 25 years. When the children were young, he was a Little League coach.

In 1992 Judge Colbath became a county court judge overseeing misdemeanor crimes, domestic battery and civil disputes during the time when his father, now retired Judge Walter Colbath Jr. also was the county’s Chief Judge. In 2003, Judge Jeff Colbath became a circuit court judge.

“When I was chief judge, I used to joke that it was the only time Jeff ever had to obey me,” said the elder Colbath, who is very proud of his son. “I really think Jeff always wanted to be a lawyer,” said Judge Colbath Jr. “He never talked about anything else. After he became a lawyer, he pointed his sights on becoming a judge. He is extremely organized and he prioritizes very well.

“He is a good husband and family man and he is handling his responsibilities in an outstanding fashion and professional way.”

The courthouse has long been a part of the Colbath family. Judge Colbath’s late grandfather, Walter Colbath Sr., was a courtroom bailiff and his brother Walter Colbath III currently is the court’s mediation services coordinator.

Judge Colbath’s current goals include making the courthouse more accessible to the public through the screening process, streamlining the foreclosure process and encouraging technological advances.

He oversees all the divisions of the courts in Palm Beach County, including the courthouses in West Palm Beach, Delray, North Palm Beach, Belle Glade and the divisions at Gun Club Road, including first appearances, traffic, Veteran’s and Drug Courts.

Judge Colbath says the court gets funding from two sources: the state of Florida and Palm Beach County. “The lion’s share of the budget is handled by the state of Florida and the county, in essence, he says, “is our landlord. The county owns and maintains the courthouses.” He, like many other jurists, laments that Florida’s court system is funded with only 6 percent of the state’s entire budget.

Nevertheless, he says, “The court system has evolved over the last several years. “It is becoming a more unified system on a statewide basis. Mandatory education has improved the professionalism of the bench.”

Though some defense lawyers believe Judge Colbath issues strong sentences in criminal cases, most judges and lawyers agree that he is personable, affable and conscientious.

He is a history buff and is known for asking lawyers in his courtroom during lulls in the proceedings what happened in history “on this day” and to define the “word of the day” by Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

His colleague, Circuit Court Judge

Joe Marx, says Judge Colbath has the respect of the judicial community and he fulfills his responsibilities efficiently, fairly and decisively.

Circuit Court Judge Krista Marx echoes that analysis. Judge Colbath

“is an organized, practical and bold decision maker. He is a born leader.

Whether Jeff is shepherding the judicial branch or planning a weekend adventure, you can be sure the result will be remarkable.”

Judge Colbath is the chair-elect of the statewide Conference of Circuit

Court Judges and a dean of the College of Advanced Studies, appointed by the Florida Supreme Court.

“Judge Colbath has a wealth of knowledge, both from his long tenure as a judge and trial lawyer,’’ says local personal injury attorney David Glatthorn. “He requires the lawyers to be prepared. He listens to both sides and calls the balls and strikes. You can’t ask for more.”

Said longtime criminal defense attorney Mitchell Beers, “Judge Colbath has significant experience and common sense to handle the challenges of chief judge. I know he learned a lot from his dad.” ¦

— Eunice Baros is an attorney and mediator in Palm Beach County. She is an elected director of the North County Section of the Palm Beach County Bar Association.

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