Florida judge faces removal for ethics violations

Palm Beach County judge Dana Santino, who last spring admitted to serious ethics violations during her election campaign last November, is now asking the Florida Supreme Court to reject a recommendation that she be removed from office.

Santino admitted making statements disparaging her opponent’s criminal defense work–statements which were found to impugn the integrity of her opponent and the entire legal profession. After an investigation, the state Judicial Qualifications Commissions recommended that Santino lose her judicial position.

The state supreme court has yet to make a decision, and could still schedule oral arguments on the Commission’s recommendation. Judge Santino remains on the county civil court bench pending resolution of the matter.

More fallout from a heated Florida judicial election

In March, I flagged a story about Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino, who was elected last November after running a particularly ugly campaign against his opponent, Gregg Lerman.  Judge Santino ran ads suggesting that Lerman, a defense attorney, represents “murders, rapists, child molesters, and other criminals.” She was subsequently investigated by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, and admitted to violating two canons of judicial ethics. The Commission has yet to issue a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court about Judge Santino’s punishment, if any.

In the meantime, there has been an interesting ripple effect. It turns out that before her own election, Judge Santino briefly served as a campaign manager to another Palm Beach County judge, Circuit Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo. In light of this fact, Gregg Lerman (Santino’s former opponent) asked Judge Caracuzzo to recuse herself from all cases in which he was representing a party. Judge Caracuzzo agreed.

Although requested by Lerman, the recusal now makes things more complicated for his practice. There are fewer judges available to his clients, which may lead to more delays in the administration of justice.

All involved insist that there are no hard feelings about the earlier campaign. But judicial elections have these sort of ancillary (and ultimately predictable) effects. At minimum, a lawyer in Mr. Lerman’s shoes might think twice before seeking a judicial position in the future.

 

Florida’s problem-solving courts see 45% surge in participation

Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit has established a series of problem-solving courts, which are designed specifically to get at the root of nonviolent criminal activity, and get the offenders the help they need to become productive citizens. State court systems around the country have begun to adopt problem-solving courts, to critical acclaim.

It appears that Florida’s work in paying off, at least with respect to participation. Participation in its drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans courts is collectively up more than 45% over this time last year.  This is encouraging precisely because problem-solving courts are not easy for the participants: they must make a financial investment in the program, and must complete all the requirements of participation, which can last a year or more.

Problem-solving courts are not appropriate for every crime or every criminal, but their success suggests that court systems can help their communities by thinking flexibly about their roles and responsibilities outside of traditional adjudication.

Florida judge faces recusal for Facebook friendship

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko’s Facebook account is the subject of a pending dispute in Florida’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal. Judge Butchko is friends on the social media site with local lawyer Israel Reyes, which appellants argue should disqualify her from hearing any cases involving Reyes or his firm.

Florida was an early leader in setting out ethics guidelines for judges on social media, with a 2009 opinion that barred judges from adding lawyers who may appear before them as “friends” on any social networking site. Had Judge Butchko recently added Mr. Reyes as a friend, it would seem a clear violation of the ethics guideline.

But there is a twist in this case: Mr. Reyes was formerly a colleague on the state bench with Judge Butchko, and it was in that capacity that they connected on Facebook. Only when Mr. Reyes left the bench did the potential for him to appear before Judge Butchko ever become a possibility. And the ethics opinion is silent about removing friends from social media–as opposed to adding new ones.

Mr. Reyes is representing a non-party in the case before Judge Butchko, but the proper defendant in the case finds the entire disqualification motion absurd:

“No reasonably prudent Miami lawyer has a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial simply because two judges who sat on the bench in Miami-Dade County are ‘friends’ on Facebook,” wrote Shutts & Bowen attorneys Patrick Brugger and Frank Zacherl of Miami, who did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Judge Butchko could presumably resolve the issue quickly by dropping Mr. Reyes as a Facebook friend, so as to avoid any perception of partiality. Nothing would prevent her from maintaining a real friendship within professional limits. And that might be the best kind of friendship after all.

 

New Jersey may prohibit publication of judges’ home contact information

The New Jersey legislature will consider bills to prohibit publishing or posting the home addresses and phone numbers of state judges and prosecutors.  Violating the prohibition would carry a potential 18-month prison sentence and a fine of $10,000.  The bill also contemplates civil penalties.

The proposal comes amid increased awareness of direct threats to the judiciary. Just yesterday, a Florida man was arrested on multiple counts of threatening and stalking judges in Broward County.  And the Texas legislature recently passed bills to beef up courthouse security and designate attacks on judges as hate crimes.

 

Makar on raising the mandatory retirement age for state judges

The Honorable Scott Makar (First District Court of Appeal, Florida) has written a short and interesting article suggesting that Florida’s mandatory judicial retirement age should be raised from 70 to at least 73. The article revisits arguments that he made twenty years ago, and finds that those arguments are still well-supported. Among the factors supporting raising the retirement age:

  • Judging is a “late peak, sustained activity” where performance peaks later in life;
  • The average American life expectancy at birth is now nearly 79 years, more than eight years higher than when the current retirement age was adopted in 1972;
  • Technology helps older judges continue to do their jobs efficiently;
  • Florida’s demographics are consistent with older citizens working later into their lives; and
  • The current constitutional provision contains a loophole that allows some judges to stay on the bench until age 73 anyway.

The judge for whom I clerked recently left the bench due to Colorado’s mandatory retirement age, and he is as sharp, fair, and thoughtful as ever. There may be good arguments against life tenure for judges, bur forcing years of accumulated experience, wisdom, and intellectual capital off the bench simply because a particular birthday rolls around seems utterly self-defeating.

(Link may require a subscription.)

Citation: Scott D. Makar, A Modest Proposal: Raise the Mandatory Judicial Retirement Age, 18 Fla. Coast. L. Rev. 51 (2016).

 

New head for Florida’s federal judicial nominating panel

In Florida, as in many other states, the state’s U.S. Senators have created a nominating panel to recommend potential nominees for the federal judicial openings.  As part of the larger vacancy crisis, Florida currently has seven openings at the federal district court level.  The state’s Lieutenant Governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, has been chosen as the new head of the nominating panel.

Let’s hope that the panel does good work, President Trump takes advantage of their pre-screening process, Senators Rubio and Nelson help shepherd the nominees through the Senate, and the people of Florida are able to enjoy a full-strength federal bench in short order.

Update on state legislation affecting the courts

State legislatures continue to propose and advance bills that will impact their respective court systems.  Here are some of the latest developments:

  • Indiana’s proposal to convert Marion County (Indianapolis) to a merit selection system is heading to conference committee.  The latest version of the bill calls for a 14-member nominating committee to choose three final candidates for the governor’s selection; four of the committee members would be chosen from voters.  Previous coverage of the Indiana bill and its history is here.
  • In Arkansas, a new bill would change the way state judges are elected in Cumberland County Superior Court.  The current election system grants seats on the bench to the top two vote-getters among all candidates.  The bill would require candidates to declare which of the two judicial seats they are seeking.
  • The Florida House of Representatives has passed an amendment to the state constitution that would impose term limits on state appellate judges, including supreme court justices.  This is a terrible idea, but happily it is still in its infancy.  The state senate would also have to approve the move, and then voters would have to approve it in 2018.  Similar efforts in others states have been defeated in recent years after they were exposed for the transparent political proposals that they were.
  • Nebraska’s unicameral legislature has advanced a bill to raise judicial pay in the state.

 

Florida judge admits ethics violations in election campaign

From the Palm Beach Post: Santino says she broke rules in election but still fit to be judge.

The judge, who was elected in November, is facing disciplinary action for four ethics violations, stemming from campaign statements that impugned the integrity of her opponent and the entire judicial process. Of note, Judge Santino sent a campaign email disparaging her opponent’s criminal defense work and is tied to a Facebook page proclaiming that her opponent “has made a lot of money trying to free Palm Beach County’s worst criminals.”

Judge Santino faces a disciplinary hearing before another state judge this week, after which recommendations will be made to the state supreme court. From an organizational perspective, this is another interesting example of the courts policing the actions of their own members even when those actions fall outside the strict definition of judicial activity.

The case, alas, is also another example of how contested judicial elections can compromise both the actual and perceived impartiality of judges. Most judges, of course, never run into ethical issues of this type. But elections vastly increase the risk of such ethical violations, and the misbehavior of a handful of judges or judicial candidates can have damaging ripple effects on the public trust of the entire judiciary.