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Supreme Court admonishes judge over ‘misleading’ campaign conduct

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday publicly reprimanded an Orlando-area circuit judge for an advertisement during her 2014 election campaign that Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said included false statements that “misled” the public.

Labarga, during a more than seven-minute reprimand, pointedly refuted arguments of Circuit Judge Kim Shepard, who has denied wrongdoing.

“At the most fundamental level, you have damaged the public’s trust and confidence in our state courts,” Labarga said to Shepard, who stood quietly before the court. “This is a very serious matter, very serious.”

Justices in May ruled that Shepard, a judge in the circuit made up of Orange and Osceola counties, should receive a 90-day suspension and a public reprimand. The decision came after an investigation that focused on an Orlando Sentinel endorsement that Shepard received in 1994 for a state House campaign.

In the 2014 judicial race, the newspaper endorsed Shepard’s opponent, Norberto Katz, whom Shepard defeated. By deleting the date of the endorsement and references to the House race, Shepard deceptively made it appear in an advertisement that she had been endorsed by the Sentinel in the judicial race, a hearing panel of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission found.

“The First Amendment does not create a free pass for judicial candidates to distort facts or misrepresent themselves or their opponents in their campaigns,” Labarga said Wednesday. He also appeared to warn Shepard about misconduct in the future.

“By this action today, we admonish you to correct whatever caused you to commit this very serious ethical breach,” Labarga said. “But we also advise you to remember what our prior cases consistently hold: The second ethical breach by a judge will be viewed far, far more harshly.”

Shepard filed a document at the U.S. Supreme Court last month indicating she planned to challenge the disciplinary action. In that document. Shepard said she used a description of her character and integrity that had been made earlier by the Sentinel but did not present it as an endorsement.

“At no time, even during the course of the judicial campaign or their (the Sentinel’s) ultimate endorsement of her opponent because of their preference for his `experience,’ did the Orlando Sentinel ever retract or modify any of these observations about the candidate’s character or integrity,” the document filed at the U.S. Supreme Court said.

“All of the record evidence below established that each of these observations were as true when used as when made.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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