Florida Judicial - DISCIPLINE
Supreme Court removes judge from office for ethical violations during election campaign. [Added 11/8/18]
In July 2018 the Florida Supreme Court ordered Judge Santino removed from office for ethical violations, On October 19, 2018, the Court followed up on that action by issuing an opinion explaining its reasons for Judge’s removal.
During a contentious campaign in which she ran as a candidate for county court judge, Santino was accused of violating judicial conduct rules. The allegations primarily related to electronic advertising about her opponent. Among other things, the advertising declared that the opponent “made a lot of money trying to free Palm Beach County’s worst criminals” rather than representing “victims of crime,” in contrast with Santino. The Palm Beach County Bar Association’s Judicial Campaign Practices Commission rendered a unanimous advisory opinion that Santino’s advertising violated the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. Santino won the election.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) charged Santino with violations. “The Hearing Panel of the JQC concluded that Santino violated canons 7A(3)(a), 7A(3)(b), 7A(3)(c), 7A(3)(e)(i), and 7A(3)(e)(ii) of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, and rules 4-8.2(a) and 4-8.2(b) of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar and recommended that she be removed from office.”
The Supreme Court approved the findings and the recommended sanction. The Court noted that “[w]here a judge commits misconduct in office, this Court has examined the issue of “present fitness” from two perspectives: ‘its effect on the public’s trust and confidence in the judiciary as reflected in its impact on the judge’s standing in the community, and the degree to which past misconduct points to future misconduct fundamentally inconsistent with the responsibilities of judicial office.’” (Citations omitted.) The Court ruled against Santino on both issues.
“We agreed with the JQC that it ‘strain[ed] credulity to believe that  Santino never looked at the Facebook page she knew was going to be created, when it was available to the public, after she received telephone calls from prominent lawyers telling her it was not being ‘well received,’ or even, as she said, before telling her campaign consultant to take it down.’ As noted by the Hearing Panel, ‘[n]othing in Canon 7 permitted Santino to delegate to her campaign manager the responsibility for written materials created or distributed by the campaign.’ Santino’s conduct cannot be deemed the product of ‘missteps’ in the course of a heated campaign. Accordingly, the actions of Santino – individually and through her campaign, for which she was ultimately responsible – unquestionably eroded public confidence in the judiciary.” Santino’s statements about her impermissibly suggested that she would be biased against criminal defendants, and were “sufficient to create fear on the behalf of criminal defendants . . . that they would not receive a fair trial or hearing.”
The past misconduct also pointed to future misconduct, with the Court observing that “although Santino accepted responsibility for her actions, she did not do so until the JQC complaint was filed against her.” Inquiry Concerning a Judge No. 16-534 re: Dana Marie Santino, __ So.3d __ (Fla., No. SC17-362), 2018 WL 5095128.
Supreme Court removes judge for “egregious misconduct” during campaign and other misconduct while in office. [Added 9/10/18]
The Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) charged Judge with a number of violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct. After appropriate proceedings the JQC recommended that Judge be removed from office. The Florida Supreme Court agreed and ordered Judge removed.
Among other things, Judge was found guilty of: posting unsubstantiated “scandalous information” about his opponent on his campaign website, without making an effort to verify its accuracy; making inaccurate statements about his opponent and the opponent’s family during a televised candidate forum, without attempting to verify the information; publicly announcing his position that he would not find any statute unconstitutional; ordering a deputy sheriff to search a person during a family law proceeding, and then having the deputy seize the money that was found; and holding first appearance hearings very early in the morning over a holiday weekend to accommodate Judge’s campaign schedule, and then starting one session earlier than announced with no counsel present.
The Court concluded: “. . . Judge DuPont committed egregious misconduct during his campaign to attain his office. Under these circumstances, we cannot allow Judge DuPont to serve the term of his judgeship. Based on the misrepresentations Judge DuPont made during his campaign to attain his office as well as the other instances of misconduct during his time in office, we conclude that Judge DuPont has demonstrated a present unfitness to hold office and approve the recommended discipline of removal from office.” Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 16-377 re: Scott C. DuPont, __ So.3d __ (Fla., No. SC16-2103, 9/6/2018), 2018 WL _______.
Supreme Court suspends and publicly reprimands judge as a result of allegedly misleading and deceptive campaign advertising. [Added 6/5/17]
While still a lawyer and judicial candidate, Judge ran a campaign ad that featured part of an endorsement she received 20 years before while serving as a state legislator. The ad did not include the date of the endorsement, and the quotation used in the ad by Judge omitted the portion of the endorsement that referred to her legislative service.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) found Judge had violated provisions of the Florida Code of Judicial Canons and the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar. Specifically, the JQC Hearing Panel “found Judge Shepard guilty of violating Canon 7A(3)(e)(ii) ‘by knowingly misrepresenting ‘other facts’ concerning her candidacy’ and Canon 7A(3)(b) ‘by acting in a manner inconsistent with integrity of the judiciary by these knowing misrepresentations.’” Judge was also found guilty of violating Rule 4-8.2(b) of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar ((lawyer who is candidate for judicial office shall comply with applicable provisions of Code of Judicial Conduct).
The JQC recommended discipline in the form of a public reprimand, a 90-day suspension without pay, and payment of investigative and hearing costs.
The Supreme Court approved the guilty findings and the recommended discipline. The Court rejected Judge’s contention that Canons 7(A)(3)(e)(ii) was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The Court also rejected Judge’s claim that she did not receive due process. Inquiry Concerning a Judge No. 14-488 re: Kimberly Michele Shepard, __ So.3d __ (Fla., No. SC15-1746, 5/4/2017) 2017 WL 1739233.
Supreme Court reprimands judge for ex parte communication and conduct “as improper as it was rude." [Added 11/14/16]
Taking mitigating circumstances into account, the Florida Supreme Court publicly reprimanded a judge for misconduct rather than considering more severe sanctions.
On his first day at the Judicial College, Judge sent an ex parte email to the Public Defender’s Office containing “suggestions for the use of a proposed order as a general template for downward departure motions” in criminal cases. A week later Judge distributed the proposed order to some state attorneys. This ex parte communication led to a blanket motion to disqualify Judge from all pending criminal cases. Judge denied the order as legally insufficient, causing the Attorney General’s Office to seek a writ of prohibition. The resulting proceedings essentially froze 962 cases in the criminal division for almost 3 months.
The disqualification-related proceedings apparently frustrated Judge, and he “lost his temper in open court” during hearings. He “chastised . . . by name” the assistant state attorney who had taken the lead in putting together the list of 962 cases, calling her an “idiot” and saying that she committed “fraud on the Fourth” DCA.
Judge was charged by the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) with misconduct. He cooperated with the JQC, admitting violating these Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct: 3B(7) (ex parte communication); 3E(1) (not recusing himself); 1; 2A, 3B(4); and 3B(9). Regarding disciplinary sanctions, the Supreme Court stated: “Although Judge Contini’s conduct was as improper as it was rude, this Court’s precedent suggests that a public reprimand with additional conditions are appropriate under these circumstances.” The Court further explained: “Were it not for the mitigating circumstances [accepting full responsibility, expressing ‘sincere remorse,’ and providing the state attorneys with a copy of the order] and Judge Contini’s full and complete cooperation with the JQC, this Court could have considered more severe sanctions.” Inquiry Concerning a Judge No. 15-200 re: John Patrick Contini, __ So.3d __ (Fla., No. SC15-2148, 10/11/2016), 2016 WL _______.
Supreme Court disciplines 2 judges, one for improper conduct in court and the other for improper ex parte communication and involvement in litigant’s case. [Added 7/14/16]
Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 15-530 re: Jerri Collins, __ So.3d __ (Fla., No. SC16-548, 7/7/2016), 2016 WL _______. Judge was accused of misconduct by the Judicial Disqualifications Commission (JQC). Judge and JQC entered into a stipulation, but it was rejected by the Supreme Court as inadequate as to the proposed sanction. Judge and JQC entered into a revised consent judgment, which the Court accepted.
Judge “berated and belittled a victim of domestic violence for failing to respond to a subpoena issued by the State Attorney to testify in the trial against her abuser, who is the father of her child.” Acting in a manner that “discourteous and impatient toward the distraught victim,” Judge “raised her voice, used sarcasm, spoke harshly, and interrupted the victim.” Judge found the victim in contempt of court. Additionally, Judge’s conduct “created the appearance of partiality toward the State.”
Judge admitted violating Canons 1, 2A, and 3B(4) of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. The Court imposed these sanctions: “a public reprimand before this Court, completion of an anger management course, and attendance at the domestic violence course offered during Phase II of the Florida Judicial College.”
Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 16-970 re: Gregory Holder, __ So.3d __ (Fla., No. SC16-970, 7/7/2016), 2016 WL _______. Judge was accused of misconduct by the Judicial Disqualifications Commission (JQC). Judge admitted violating Canons 1, 2A, 2B, 3B(7), and 3B(9) of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. Judge engaged in improper ex parte communication and involvement in a litigant’s case, although it was motivated by a “well-intentioned desire to help” the defendant, who was a veteran, pursue a college education.
The Court summarized the offending conduct: “Judge Holder unilaterally contacted the President of the University of South Florida while the defendant’s case was pending and promised in an ex parte communication that he could ‘personally modify’ the defendant’s community control. He further contacted the Chief Assistant State Attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit and advocated on behalf of the defendant that the State should allow the defendant to have his adjudication withheld. By engaging in such conduct, Judge Holder failed to maintain the high standards of conduct necessary to preserve the integrity of the judiciary, violating Canon 1, and acted in a manner that could potentially undermine public confidence in the judiciary, violating Canon 2A. Further, his conduct created the appearance of impropriety and partiality, violating Canon 2B. Finally, Judge Holder admitted to engaging in ex parte communications with the Chief Assistant State Attorney and sending a letter making public comments regarding the defendant’s case to the President of the University of South Florida, violating Canons 3B(7) and 3B(9), respectively.”
Supreme Court removes judge from office for conduct relating to physical altercation with assistant public defender. [Added 12/21/15]
The Judicial Qualifications Commission (“JQC”) charged Judge with misconduct based on Judge’s “alleged misconduct of threatening violence against an assistant public defender, leaving the bench to meet the assistant public defender in the hall to engage in a physical scuffle, returning to the bench to call cases in which defendants were represented by the Public Defender’s Office and were without the presence of their attorney, and inducing some of the defendants to waive speedy trial rights.” The JQC found Judge guilty of violating Canons 1, 2A, 3A, 3B(3), 3B(4), 3B(7), 3B(8), and 5G of the Code of Judicial Conduct, as well as Rule of Professional Conduct 4-1.1. The JQC recommended that Judge be publicly reprimanded, suspended without pay for 60 days, required to continue participation in mental health therapy, and required to attend judicial education courses.
The Supreme Court agreed that Judge was guilty, but rejected the proposed discipline. The Court removed Judge from office. Judge’s “egregious conduct demonstrates his present unfitness to remain in office. Furthermore, where a judge’s actions erode public faith in the courts, removal is appropriate. Judge Murphy’s grievous misconduct became a national spectacle and an embarrassment to Florida’s judicial system. We conclude that, through his misconduct, Judge Murphy surrendered his privilege to serve in our court system.” Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 14-255 re: John C. Murphy, __ So.3d __ (Fla., No. SC14-1582, 12/17/2015), 2015 WL _______.
Supreme Court disciplines judge for “rude and intemperate interaction” with citizen during contested judicial election, as well as improper use of authority while presiding over case. [Added 9/16/15]
During a contested election campaign, Judge saw her opponent’s campaign sign in a convenience store. Judge attempted to convince the store owner, Mr. Hussain, to display Judge’s campaign sign. When Mr. Hussain refused, Judge lost her temper, used profanity, and threatened to sue him. In an unrelated incident, while presiding over a case Judge wrote some notes on pages of scrap paper and original documents in the court file. A party later reviewed the file and photocopied Judge’s notes. When the party requested certified copies of the pages with Judge’s notes, Judge ordered the bailiff to remove those pages from the file. The party filed a motion to disqualify Judge from the case. Judge denied the motion.
Judge was charged with violations of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. Judge and the Judicial Qualifications Commission (“JQC”) entered into a stipulation in which the Judge admitted misconduct and would be disciplined by a public reprimand and a written apology to a citizen with whom Judge improperly interacted. The Supreme Court rejected the terms of the stipulation as “inadequate to address the serious violations committed by” Judge.
Judge and JQC filed a revised consent judgment, under which Judge would receive a public reprimand before the Supreme Court, a 30-day suspension without pay, and a $10,000, in addition to writing a letter of apology to the citizen. The Supreme Court accepted the revised consent judgment. The Court concluded that Judge violated Code of Judicial Conduct Canons 1, 2A, 3B(8), 4A(2), 4A(3), and 7A(3)(b). Inquiry Concerning a Judge, Nos. 14-299, 14-415 re: Jacqueline Schwartz, __ So.3d __ (Fla., No. SC14-312, 9/10/2015).
Supreme Court removes judge from bench due to misconduct as a lawyer before being elected to judicial office. [Added 6/20/15]
Judge Watson was elected to the bench in 2012. Prior to that time she had been a practicing lawyer. Watson entered into a complicated arrangement with other lawyers and law firms relating to Personal Injury Protection (“PIP”) claims against an insurance company, as well as to bad faith claims against the same insurer.
The PIP lawyers settled with the insurer for $14.5 million, which settled the PIP claims and the bad faith claims without notifying the bad faith lawyers and without allocating any recovery to the bad faith claims – even though the bad faith claims were required to be released. The PIP lawyers notified their clients of the settlement “but did not disclose the conflicts of interests, provide closing statements, or advise the clients of the material facts necessary to make an informed decision about their cases or execution of the releases. . . . Watson’s firm received $3,075,000, from which $361,470.30 was paid to clients. The clients still did not receive closing statements.”
The bad faith lawyers sued the PIP lawyers for fraudulent inducement and quantum meruit. The trial court found, among other things, that the PIP lawyers violated several rules of professional conduct. The Bar opened an investigation and charged Watson with numerous rule violations. Shortly after the Bar found probable cause, Watson was elected to the circuit court bench. The Bar then transferred its file to the Judicial Qualifications Commission (“JQC”).
The JQC proceeded against Watson, finding her guilty of violating numerous Rules Regulating The Florida Bar and concluding that “Watson ‘sold her clients, her co-counsel, and ultimately herself.” The JQC found that Watson’s conduct was “fundamentally inconsistent with the responsibilities of judicial office” and recommended that she be removed from office.
The Supreme Court agreed and ordered Watson removed from the bench. The Court rejected Watson’s argument that the JQC and the Court had jurisdiction over her conduct. “See In re Henson, 913 So.2d at 588 (‘Misconduct committed by an attorney who subsequently becomes a judge falls within the subject-matter jurisdiction of this Court and the JQC, no matter how remote. . . . JQC proceedings are constitutionally authorized for alleged misconduct by a judge during the time he or she was a lawyer.’); see also In re Davey, 645 So.2d at 403 (‘[T]he Commission has constitutional authority to investigate pre-judicial acts and recommend to this Court the removal (for unfitness) or reprimand (for misconduct) of a sitting judge.’).” Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 12-613 re: Laura Marie Watson, __ So.3d __ (Fla., No. SC13-1333, 6/18/2015), 2015 WL 3767859.
Supreme Court suspends judge for 30 days for using social media for her husband’s judicial campaign. [Added 6/5/15]
Judge’s husband was running for a judicial office. During the campaign, Judge thought that her husband’s opponent was making misrepresentations about her husband. Frustrated with the opponent’s lack of response to Judge’s private attempts to get the record corrected, Judge made a Facebook post “to seek the assistance of her friends to help her husband correct perceived misstatements of his judicial opponent.” Judge intended the posting to be a private message to her friends, but – as can happen with social media – the posting received wide distribution.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission (“JQC”) charged Judge with violating Canons 1, 2, 7A and 7D of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. Judge and the JCQ submitted an agreed stipulation to the Court.
The Court suspended Judge for 30 days without pay. Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 14-454 re: Debra L. Krause, __ So.3d __ (Fla., No. SC14-1812, 6/4/2015), 2015 WL 3496447.
Judge publicly reprimanded by Supreme Court for lack of candor in connection with statements made before Judicial Nominating Commission. [Added 4/11/115]
Judge was a trial court judge with a poor driving record (i.e., ticketed twice for careless driving, once for ignoring a stop sign, four times for not having proof of insurance). Judge applied for an opening on the appellate court. She knew that the Judicial Nominating Commission had concerns about her driving record. Judge was ticketed for speeding on her way to the interview with the JNC. At the interview, she did not tell the members about that ticket. At a follow up interview 6 months later, Judge was asked: “Have you had any [traffic] stops this year?” She answered “no.”
The Judicial Qualifications Commission (“JQC”) charged Judge with violating the Code of Judicial Conduct by falsely answering “no” to the traffic stop question. Judge claimed that she misunderstood the question and was not intentionally dishonest. Judge agreed that she “did not provide the level of candor expected” of a judge and did not contest the JQC’s findings that she violated certain Code provisions (e.g., appearance of impropriety, conduct demeaning the judicial office).
The Supreme Court emphasized that “[c]andor as a judge is clearly critical.” The Court agreed with the JQC “that the incompleteness and inaccuracy of the responses constitutes a lack of candor amounting to an ethical violation where, as here, the statements are misleading.” The Court also agreed with the JQC that Judge should be publicly reprimanded. Inquiry Concerning a Judge No. 14-557 re: Jessica J. Recksiedler, __ So.3d __ (Fla., No. SC15-311, 4/9/2015).
Supreme Court removes county court judge from office for violations of Code of Judicial Conduct including conducting private business out of chambers and obstructing JQC’s investigation. [Added 10/30/14]
The Judicial Qualifications Commission (“JQC”) charged a county court judge with ethical improprieties. Judge was accused of running a private business (Gaza Road Ministries) out of her office, which included using state time and resources, having her judicial assistant work for Judge’s business on state time, and failing to pay state sales taxes on products that Judge sold through her business. These products included a book that Judge sold to persons over whom she had authority and influence, such as lawyers and courthouse employees. During the JQC’s investigation, Judge was accused of exhibiting a lack of candor, engaging in obstructive behavior, and providing untruthful answers. The JQC found Judge guilty of violating various canons of the Code of Judicial Ethics and recommended a public reprimand as the sanction.
The Supreme Court agreed with the guilty findings but rejected the recommended sanction, instead concluding that “removal from the bench is the only appropriate sanction in this case.”
Judge violated Canons 1, 2B, and 5D by “operating a private business in significant part from her judicial chambers, linking the sale of her products to her judicial office by depicting herself wearing judicial robes on the business website, and using State time and resources to promote her business.”
Judge violated Canons 1 and 2A by “her failure to pay sales tax on the sale of Gaza Road Ministries products and by her failure to register her business under the Florida Fictitious Name Act.” She also violated these canons and exhibited a lack of candor by “repeatedly evading and frustrating discovery, deleting subpoenaed records, misleading the Investigative Panel and the Commission investigator, and refusing to turn over financial data and flash drives when ordered by the [JQC] Hearing Panel.” The Supreme Court found particularly egregious Judge’s actions in deleting financial data relating to her private business from her computer early in the morning of her deposition. “This act alone is clear and convincing proof of Judge ’ extreme lack of candor in these proceedings. This act alone violated the basic requirement of Canon 1 that a judge ‘shall personally observe those high standards [of conduct] so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved.’ This act alone was a serious violation of Canon 2A that a judge ‘shall respect and comply with the law.’”
Regarding the sanction of removal that it imposed, the Court observed that Judge’s “misstatements to the investigating attorney and Investigative Panel, her deletion of subpoenaed financial information from her computer on the morning of her deposition, and her denial that she had flash drives are all forms of deception that can be equated to deceit or dishonesty for purposes of determining if removal is a proper sanction in this case.” The Court concluded that Judge’s “conduct is fundamentally inconsistent with the responsibilities of judicial office, demonstrating present unfitness to hold office, and that removal is the only appropriate sanction in this case.” Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 11-550 re: Judith W. Hawkins, ___ So.3d __ (Fla., No. SC12-2495, 10/30/2014).
Judge reprimanded for demeaning those who appeared before her in certain cases and for appearing at first appearance criminal hearing for her sister. [Added 10/20/14]
The Florida Supreme Court accepted a stipulation from the Judicial Qualifications Commission and a judge accused of misconduct. The Court agreed that the judge should be publicly reprimanded.
Among other things, the judge appeared at a criminal court first appearance hearing for her sister. Without identifying herself as a judge, the judge vouched for her sister as a character witness, “argued on her sister’s behalf about the circumstances surrounding the allegations contained in the probable cause affidavit,” and asked that the court “order law enforcement to assist her sister by accompanying her to the house to retrieve personal items.” This conduct violated Canons 1, 2A, 2B, and 5G of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. The judge also violated Canon 3B(4) by, when presiding over cases involving juveniles and those seeking injunctions, failing to comport herself in accordance with the requisite patience, dignity and courtesy expected of her judicial office. Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 13-17 re: Sandy K. Kautz, ___ So.3d __ (Fla., No. SC13-2262, 10/16/2014).
Supreme Court reprimands judge for DUI conviction. [Added 5/22/14]
Judge was arrested and convicted of DUI. The Judicial Qualifications Commission (“JQC”) charged Judge with violating Canons 1 and 2A of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. Judge and the JQC entered into a stipulation admitting the violations and accepting full responsibility for her conduct. The JQC recommended a public reprimand as the disciplinary sanction.
The Supreme Court accepted the stipulation and ordered Judge to appear before the Court for a public reprimand. The Court commented: Judge’s “action of driving under the influence not only violated Florida’s criminal law but also endangered the public. Such disregard of criminal law and public safety undermines the public’s confidence in the integrity of the judiciary and will not be tolerated.” Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 13-309 re: Brenda Tracy Sheehan, __ S0.3d __ (Fla., No. SC14-136, 5/15/2014).
Supreme Court reprimands judge for intemperate courtroom behavior. [Added 3/13] -- Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 10-265 re: Timothy R. Shea, 110 So.3d 414 (Fla. 2013).
Supreme Court publicly reprimands judge convicted of driving under the influence. [Added 7/13/12] -- Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 11-551 re: Kathryn Maxine Nelson, 95 So.3d 122 (Fla. 2012).
Supreme Court reprimands judge for “habitual tardiness” and an “inappropriate” statement about his religious beliefs. [Added 6/8/12] -- Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 10-420 re: William Singbush, 93 So.3d 188 (Fla. 2012).