Supreme Court could reprimand judge over “undignified conduct”

The Florida Supreme Court is signaling it agrees with the proposed punishment for a Broward judge.

A panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission had recommended a public reprimand, mentoring and stress management classes after Circuit Judge John Patrick Contini was brought up on judicial conduct charges last year.

The court issued an order to Contini on Monday “to show cause, on or before July 5, why the recommended action should not be granted.”

He was accused of sending a document on how to argue for lesser sentences to an assistant public defender without giving a copy to prosecutors. Contini himself is a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney.

When they sought to disqualify him from pending criminal cases because of an appearance of bias, he rejected the request and lashed out against them, making “disparaging, demeaning remarks,” a JQC report says.

Contini later admitted making an “improper communication,” and “exhibiting discourteous, impatient, undignified conduct.”

He only challenged “the propriety of his ruling on the State’s disqualification motion, and the appropriate discipline.”

Though he’s practiced law for 31 years, Contini was only elected judge in 2014 and on the bench since January 2015, the report says. He was assigned felony matters and given a hefty docket of more than 1,000 cases.

After the document incident, he brushed aside as “legally insufficient” a request to disqualify himself, the report says.

After his decision was appealed, Contini admitted he “‘lost it’ in court, ‘overreacted,’ ‘personified incivility,’ and had ‘no excuse’ for his comments.”

They included referring to a “disingenuous prosecutor” whom he believed compiled a list of cases from which he should be disqualified.

He further called the “absolutely fraudulent” list “unethical, it’s misleading, it’s disingenuous, it’s a fraud on the court, it’s a lie from the pit (of) hell.”

He was transferred to family court, where he remains.

The JQC panel noted that “Contini was a new judge, who … made a series of significant missteps.”

It also said he “immediately accepted responsibility for his conduct, expressed sincere remorse, and apologized.”

Martin Dyckman: Pam Bondi’s mess too pungent to ignore

Assume that Pam Bondi were a judge. That’s a dismal prospect but bear with it.

Assume further that she asked for a campaign contribution from a big shot businessman who was being sued in her court — and that after getting the money, she dismissed the case.

If she was a judge, instead of Florida’s attorney general, she could be kicked out of office simply for asking anyone for a campaign contribution, even without a pending case being involved.

The Florida Code of Judicial Conduct clearly bans personal solicitation by judges. Surprising many, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that rule last year.

With a case involved, she’d be an even bigger target for the Judicial Qualifications Commission and for impeachment — and perhaps also for a grand jury …

The Florida Attorney General is more than just another lawyer. If the odor reeking out of Bondi’s office means anything, it’s that the AG should have to follow the same ethical code that judges must.

The imaginary case I described is an analogy to Bondi’s conduct with respect to Donald Trump and the yuuuuge consumer scam known as Trump University.

Florida complaints against Trump University were pending in her office — the question is, how many — and the office supposedly was considering whether to join a New York Attorney General’s investigation, Bondi personally solicited a $25,000 campaign contribution from Trump. The eventual decision was to let her New York counterpart go it alone.

A committee backing Pam Bondi’s re-election received $25,000 from a Trump Foundation on Sept. 17, 2013, four days after it was announced that the office was considering whether to join the New York probe.

After the check came in, Bondi — or someone — decided against the investigation.

While her campaign mouthpiece admits she personally asked Trump for the money, he denies that she was aware that many Floridians had complained to her office about the so-called “university.”

If you have been following the news from San Diego, Trump University is a big, big deal. The documents unsealed in a lawsuit there depict it as a bait-and-switch racket. People flocking for advice from expert teachers supposedly chosen by the master himself were high-pressured to spend thousands more dollars on higher levels of questionably valued instruction.

The federal judge in the case, Gonzalo Curiel, is the one Trump has been attacking over his Mexican ancestry, with a venom that is repelling even supporters like House Speaker Paul Ryan.

As Sen. Lindsey Graham put it, there’s been nothing so outrageous since Joe McCarthy.

But I digress. The issue of the moment is Bondi.

As I said, she’s not just another lawyer. Her public duty is vastly greater than simply representing state agencies in court and fending off criminal appeals.

She also has an explicit responsibility to represent the public under Florida’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices law, also known as the Little FTC Act. The law, proposed by Gov. Reubin Askew and passed over intense opposition in 1973, was one of the great reforms — and one of the few still standing — of what’s called the Golden Age of the Florida Legislature

What it says is that when the attorney general finds some business dealing down and dirty, he — or she — sues on the public’s behalf.

Bondi’s predecessors used the law to great effect.

A lawyer from Boston has filed complaints against Bondi with the Commission on Ethics, the Elections Commission and the Florida Bar. The Bar complaint may be the most significant. A lawyer owes an undivided loyalty to her client. If the public is considered her client, Bondi had no business accepting, let alone soliciting, a contribution from Trump.

But the Bar complaint is unlikely to go anywhere, at least not while Bondi remains in office. The Florida Supreme Court ruled long ago that the Bar, whose ultimate penalty is disbarment, cannot take action against a constitutional officer who must be a lawyer — judge or attorney general — to hold the office. It would amount to an impeachment proceeding, which is solely the business of the Legislature.

The House should be considering impeachment, right now. But don’t hold your breath. The prospect of that intensely politicized body targeting anyone from the majority party is remote at best.

For perspective, consider what happened in 1973 when the media caught the lieutenant governor, Tom Adams, using a state employee from the Commerce Department to run Adams’s private farm not far from Tallahassee.

Although he was a Democrat, the Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives went right after him with impeachment hearings. The money misspent at the farm wasn’t great, but the principle was, as the leaders saw it.

It took intense lobbying by Askew to deflect the likely impeachment into an essentially meaningless vote of censure instead. He also canned Adams as commerce secretary and dropped him from his 1974 re-election ticket.

What Adams did was petty graft, but it was not such a fundamental betrayal of his office and his duties as it would be for an attorney general to nix a well-founded investigation in exchange for a campaign contribution.

I’m not saying that’s what she did. She denies it. However glaring the circumstantial evidence, it doesn’t prove there was a quid pro quo. It doesn’t prove what she knew about Trump University or when she knew it.

Those are, however, questions that beg to be pursued by people with the power to subpoena witnesses and evidence.

This latest mess in Bondi’s office is too pungent to be ignored.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper now known as the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

Judicial panel recommends judge’s suspension for impairment

A Florida judicial panel is recommending that a Miami-Dade County judge be suspended from the bench because of evidence she was impaired at a restaurant and at work.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission panel made the recommendation Monday pending the outcome of Judge Jacqueline Schwartz‘s case. The Florida Supreme Court must decide whether to approve the recommendation.

An investigation found that Schwartz appeared to be impaired on March 18 at a Coconut Grove restaurant, where witnesses said she berated waiters and called police “pigs.” The probe also found on March 28 Schwartz was impaired on the bench to the point where her bailiff had to drive her home.

Schwartz attributed her behavior to a new prescription medication, not alcohol.

Schwartz was previously suspended and fined $10,000 for swearing at a store clerk.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Judge who took Rays tickets from law firm quits bench

The Bradenton trial judge who accepted baseball tickets from a law firm representing a woman whose personal injury case he was presiding over has resigned from the bench.

Lakin
Lakin

Circuit Judge John F. Lakin resigned Monday from the 12th Judicial Circuit. It serves DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties. The news was first reported Thursday by Law360.

Lakin, elected in 2012, was facing a judicial conduct inquiry by the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), which said he demonstrated “a present unfitness to serve.” Because he quit, the state dismissed the case.

In an answer to the charges filed Feb. 5, Lakin admitted what he did, but apologized and said he “had no wrongful intent.”

“As a relatively new judge, he was not as familiar with the (rules of judicial conduct) as he could have been,” his answer said. Lakin is a former legal analyst for Court TV and MSNBC and a past “Florida Super Lawyer.”

He thought he would just list the tickets on his yearly financial disclosure form and “did not appreciate that his use of the tickets would adversely reflect on the judiciary and the administration of justice.”

The JQC said Lakin called the plaintiff’s law firm and asked for tickets for a Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox game a day after the verdict in the case. A jury had found Walmart not responsible for the woman’s injuries.

“Despite the fact that the case was not yet final, and you expected that there would be post-trial motions requiring your adjudication, you failed to advise Walmart’s counsel of your contact with the Plaintiff’s law firm,” the report said.

The lawyers later asked for the verdict to be set aside and for a new trial. Lakin considered the motion but did not immediately rule on it, according to the JQC report.

He did ask for and got more baseball tickets from the firm, it added. Afterward, Lakin set aside the jury’s verdict and granted a new trial.

“Your extraordinary action allowed the Plaintiff a second opportunity to seek damages from Walmart,” the JQC report said. “You have acknowledged that during your tenure on the bench you have never before overturned a jury verdict.”

In all, he asked for and got five tickets to four separate Major League Baseball games, “all while the case was pending, and without ever disclosing this fact to the counsel for Walmart,” the report said.

“The tickets you received were excellent seats, being located seven to eight rows back, between home plate and first base,” it added. “They each had a face value of approximately $100.”

Judicial conduct panel charges Bradenton judge over Rays baseball tickets

A Bradenton trial judge was charged Monday with accepting baseball tickets from a law firm representing a woman whose personal injury case he was presiding over.

Circuit Judge John F. Lakin was accused of violating the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct by the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), which said he demonstrated “a present unfitness to serve.” The JQC investigates allegations of judicial misconduct.

Lakin called Kallins, Little & Delgado, the plaintiff’s law firm, and asked for tickets for a Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox game a day after the verdict in the case, the JQC report said. A jury had found Walmart not responsible for the woman’s injuries.

“Despite the fact that the case was not yet final, and you expected that there would be post-trial motions requiring your adjudication, you failed to advise Walmart’s counsel of your contact with the Plaintiff’s law firm,” the report said.

The lawyers later asked for the verdict to be set aside and for a new trial. Lakin considered the motion but did not immediately rule on it, according to the report.

He did ask for and got more baseball tickets from the firm, it added. Afterward, Lakin set aside the jury’s verdict and granted a new trial.

“Your extraordinary action allowed the Plaintiff a second opportunity to seek damages from Walmart,” the JQC report said. “You have acknowledged that during your tenure on the bench you have never before overturned a jury verdict.”

He was elected in 2012 to the 12th Judicial Circuit that serves DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties.

“In total, you requested and received five tickets to four separate Major League Baseball games from the Plaintiff’s attorneys, all while the case was pending, and without ever disclosing this fact to the counsel for Walmart,” the report said.

“The tickets you received were excellent seats, being located seven to eight rows back, between home plate and first base,” it added. “They each had a face value of approximately $100.”

Lakin, a former legal analyst for Court TV and MSNBC and a past “Florida Super Lawyer,” has not yet responded to the report, court dockets show.

Judicial campaign conduct forums scheduled May 6-7

When it comes to elections, judgeships are never “politics as usual.” Thanks to a special set of ethics rules called Canon 7 of Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct, candidates for judicial office must abide by the strictest standards imposed in any type of election.

As candidates are reminded by Chief Justice Peggy A. Quince, “Public respect and confidence are so essential to a judge’s role that they are woven into the selection of judges through the electoral process. The Florida Supreme Court has adopted rules that govern judicial elections and prohibit conduct that would undercut public confidence in our justice system. Together with the Judicial Qualifications Commission and The Florida Bar, we vigorously enforce these rules.”

The standards governing judicial elections will be explained to candidates, campaign managers, the news media, and others in a series of forums designed to raise awareness of Canon 7. The forums are being organized by the Florida Supreme Court and The Florida Bar Board of Governors in conjunction with the Court’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee and the state’s trial court chief judges. The ninety-minute forums are scheduled at 1:00 p.m. local time (with four exceptions noted below), Thursday and Friday, May 6 – 7, in all circuits in which there will be contested judicial elections. Forums in the First, Third, and Fifteenth Circuits are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. local time. The forum in the Eighth Circuit is scheduled for 9 a.m. local time.

Chief judges will open the forums with brief remarks stressing the nonpartisan character of judicial races, then present a videotaped introduction by the Chief Justice. Representatives of The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors will speak briefly regarding the Bar’s role in judicial elections. Florida’s Division of Elections has prepared helpful information about Florida’s election laws which will also be presented. Members of the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee will then provide a summary review of Canon 7, call attention to informational resources, and further impress upon candidates, campaign staff, and others in the community the seriousness with which the Supreme Court views any abuse of the election process.

The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee is charged with rendering advisory opinions interpreting the application of the Code of Judicial Conduct to specific circumstances confronting or affecting judges and judicial candidates. The committee’s elections booklet, “An Aid to Understanding Canon 7,” will be distributed at all forums, first to candidates and campaign managers, then to others as available. An online version of the Canon 7 booklet may be accessed on the Supreme Court’s website at www.floridasupremecourt.org, by first selecting Public Information, then, under Court Documents, scrolling down to Judicial Conduct.

All judicial candidates, including those who may anticipate running for potential new judgeships, and their campaign managers are encouraged to attend the forums in their respective circuits. Invitations have also been extended to local bar association presidents, state and county political party chairs, and the media. All forums are open to the public.

Sixth –Pasco and Pinellas Counties
Thursday, May 6
Criminal Justice Center
First Floor Conference Room
14250 49th Street North

Thirteenth –Hillsborough County
Friday, May 7
Edgecomb Courthouse
800 E. Twiggs Street
Judicial Conference Room, 6th Floor
Tampa, FL 33602
Clearwater, FL