You Can't Take It With You

By dying rich, Dora Pomeranc ensured that Dade's probate court would continue to be a very lively place

The subpoena landed on the judge's desk with an offensive slap and was quickly whisked away to the office of the county attorney, where it became the object of some consternation. As long as anyone in the office could remember, no lawyer had ever had the temerity to attempt to subpoena the judge who was presiding over his case.

At the county attorney's office, the action was regarded as an embarrassing affront, a breach of courthouse etiquette. Besides that, it was deemed to be ridiculous, legally speaking. An attorney simply cannot subpoena his own judge for questioning. And so the county expeditiously filed a motion to quash.

The substance of attorney Irving Yedwab's concern: that veteran probate court Judge Robert H. Newman might have an improper relationship with Yedwab's opponents in a guardianship/estate proceeding.

Twice already the attorney had attempted to interest the local custodians of courthouse ethics in his case, and he was becoming convinced that the forces of justice were being unfairly deployed against him. Yedwab had tried filing a complaint with the Florida Bar, but the Bar had declined to investigate. He had asked Judge Newman to voluntarily recuse himself. The judge had refused. Yedwab then appealed Newman's decision to the Third District Court of Appeal, but the appellate court sided with Newman.

The subpoena, which would have had Judge Newman submit to a sworn deposition this past December, was a legally dubious act of desperation. But Yedwab reasoned that he needed rock-solid proof of Newman's alleged bias, and he intended to get it by questioning the 68-year-old jurist about the nature of his relationship with attorney Martin Levinson, age 61, and his wife Shirley, also 61, as well as with Dade County probate maven and former Florida Bar president Sam Smith, who was representing the couple. Yedwab's clients, two of Shirley Levinson's sisters, were accusing Shirley and Martin Levinson of conspiring to deprive them of their share of a deceased aunt's estate.

Not that a subpoena and deposition were really necessary. It's common knowledge around the Dade County Courthouse that Smith and Newman are good friends. They both sit on the board of directors for Jewish Family Services. They occasionally dine together. "I was at a wedding that [Newman] was at two weeks ago," Smith says candidly. "In fact, we sat at the same table." The two men have been pals for years, he notes. "I think it's terrible to say to somebody, 'Become a judge and none of your friends who are lawyers will ever speak to you again.'"

As for Martin Levinson, the South Dade attorney also attends some of the same professional and social functions as the judge. Now and then his wife Shirley bumps into Newman's wife Gail on the tennis courts. For a few years the Levinsons and Newmans attended the same synagogue, Temple Beth Am in Kendall, where Newman had once been president of the congregation.

In the intimate world of Dade probate court, these types of friendships are commonplace, according to long-time practitioners. They are certainly not regarded as conflicts of interest, and for Yedwab to suggest as much was not only considered gauche, it was downright insulting.

"Newman knows everyone," says Ed Golden, chairman of the probate and guardianship committee of the Dade County Bar Association. "Usually he'll announce early on [in a proceeding]: 'I married this couple, or I was at their son's bar mitzvah.'"

Probate lawyers rarely have a problem with the judge's disclosure, Golden continues: "Newman is very fair. I know a lot of people he's very close to whom he rules against on a regular basis. It's very difficult to be in a situation -- if you're active in your practice and you're active in the bar association -- in which you don't run into judges in social situations."

The social whirl of Dade County lawyers and judges, however, does not include all professionals, among them Irving Yedwab, a sole practitioner with a storefront office in the unglamorous burg of Surfside. In the warm, soupy waters of South Florida's legal aquarium, Yedwab is a bottom feeder. For more than 36 years he has earned his living by carrying out humdrum legal chores: filing tax documents, setting up trusts, composing wills. High-profile cases have not come his way, nor have opportunities to hobnob.

When Judge Newman first announced that he was acquainted with Martin and Shirley Levinson in an off-the-cuff comment during a hearing in late 1994, Yedwab didn't object, much less ask the judge to recuse himself. Most probate practitioners consider Newman to be among the most impartial and competent jurists on the bench. A judge since 1978, he consistently earns high ratings in the annual poll sponsored by the Dade County Bar Association (38.5 percent of the lawyers surveyed rated him as exceptionally qualified in 1994, the most recent poll of the circuit court, and 53.8 percent described him as qualified, the next highest rating). Thus, Yedwab reasoned, even taking into consideration Newman's link to the Levinsons, his clients might fare worse before another judge.

It wasn't until Yedwab began to review the accounts submitted by Shirley Levinson, who had been appointed guardian in the case in question, that he became uneasy. In court documents submitted by Yedwab, the lawyer claims that the financial records showed clear evidence of "obviously improper, illegal, unprofessional, and criminal acts of the guardian." What's more, as Shirley Levinson's attorney for the guardianship, her husband Martin was also implicated. Initially at least, Judge Newman's response to Yedwab's complaints and allegations -- proffered in vehement courtroom declarations and overwrought petitions -- did not satisfy the attorney, who became increasingly skeptical of the judge's impartiality.

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