High court removes Palm Beach County judge over campaign misconduct

July 03–A sharply divided Florida Supreme Court on Monday removed Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino from the bench over 2016 campaign violations.

The 4-3 decision follows a recommendation from the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which found Santino unfit for the job and lacking impartiality because her election bid smeared opponent Gregg Lerman’s criminal defense practice.

Following her removal, Santino provided a statement to the South Florida Sun Sentinel through her attorney, Jeremy Kroll, a former Broward prosecutor.

“I woke up every morning excited to go to work and to give the public a voice in our judicial system and I thank the people of Palm Beach County for that opportunity,” she said, in part.

After being charged with the ethics violations, the 50-year-old Santino apologized for her “foolish” mistake of breaking rules against negative campaign ads for all judicial candidates in Florida.

She was hoping the high court would let her keep the black robes because of her performance since taking office, and punish her with a substantial fine and a public reprimand.

Early this year, Kroll argued removing Santino would be unprecedented in the state’s modern judicial history, “absent additional, noncampaign misconduct.”

The specific reasons for the Supreme Court’s order will be published in a full opinion at a later date. It’s also not yet clear whether Santino will face any fines.

Justices Barbara J. Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy A. Quince, and Jorge Labarga agreed to remove Santino, while Chief Justice Charles T. Canady, and Justices Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson dissented.

Santino is likely to face additional discipline by the Florida Bar, which governs attorneys’ conduct in Florida. The Judicial Qualifications Commission had also accused Santino of violating two Bar rules from her election campaign.

While testifying before a commission hearing panel last year, Santino blamed her campaign manager and the long days of running for office as the reason for letting down “my better judgment.”

Santino’s campaign included a Facebook page that blasted opponent Lerman’s defense of “Palm Beach County’s worst criminals” and listed a few of his higher-profile cases. The page showed a photo of Lerman surrounded by the words “child pornography,” “murder,” “rape” and more, in boldface and all capital letters.

After losing the election by 14,816 votes out of 482,714 votes cast, Lerman filed a complaint that Santino’s campaign attacks violated Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct.

One of the rules calls for judges or anyone campaigning for a seat to “refrain from inappropriate political activity” and maintain the dignity that comes with being a judge.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission charged Santino with misconduct and accused her of employing a “win-at-all-costs-and-pay-the-fine-later strategy.”

Alexander Williams, assistant general counsel for the independent agency based in Tallahassee, suggested Santino probably won because of the way she portrayed Lerman.

“That language appears to have resonated with the public, stoking fears of a judge who will be sympathetic to criminals and ‘soft on crime,’ ” he wrote. “The prize for intentionally and selfishly inflicting such damage on the judiciary cannot be a judicial office.”

Santino’s ouster creates a vacancy which Gov. Rick Scott is expected to fill with an appointment this year, following a call for nominations. Santino had about two-and-a-half-years left on her term.

“We are reviewing this,” said Ashley Cook, the governor’s press secretary.

Scott originally wanted to fill the seat two years ago with an appointment. But Lerman, a West Palm Beach attorney, successfully sued the governor and forced the election he ultimately lost in a runoff to Santino.

Lerman said Monday he doesn’t expect to seek a nomination but hasn’t made a final decision.

“This doesn’t make me a judge,” he said of Santino’s removal. “But hopefully it sends a message to everybody else that’s running for judge that they have to follow the rules.”

Lerman also wasn’t interested in Santino’s apology: “She sat on the bench for 18 months when she simply didn’t deserve to be there.”

Santino’s supporters had urged the Supreme Court to give her a chance to build upon her exemplary conduct as a judge. Her defense included sworn statements from other judges and various lawyers that Santino has demonstrated a “strong work ethic on the bench.”

But now she is out of the job she said she wanted ever since the day she applied to law school.

“I am forever grateful for the opportunity to have served the people of Palm Beach County over the past eighteen months,” Santino said, crediting “other wonderful, hard-working judges” and courthouse employees “who work diligently every day to uphold our system of justice.”

This article provided by NewsEdge.