Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino should be off bench, panel says


Neither good works on the bench nor claims of accepted responsibility from Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino are enough for her to keep the job she won in a 2016 election where she bashed her opponent for being a criminal defense attorney, according to a judicial panel that has recommended the Florida Supreme Court require her to step down.

An attorney from a six-member panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which recommended Santino’s removal from the bench earlier this year, fired back Sunday at Santino’s continued efforts to keep her job in a case that is now up to the high court to decide.

Santino last month filed a pleading urging the Supreme Court to reject the JQC panel’s recommendations. She argued that the violations were an isolated incident, other judges who committed similar violations escaped being stripped of their robes and she is currently fit for office in spite of her past transgression.

In an answer to Santino released Monday, Alexander John Williams, the judicial watchdog panel’s assistant general counsel, said Santino’s transgressions were particularly egregious and keeping her on the bench would encourage future judicial candidates to adopt a “win-at-all-costs-and-pay-the-fine-later” strategy.

“Judge Santino attacked Constitutional guarantees, violated the Canons, and not only damaged her opponent’s chances of winning the election, but she also damaged the public’s perception of the fairness and integrity of the judiciary,” Williams wrote.”The prize for intentionally, and selfishly inflicting such damage on the judiciary cannot be a judicial office.”

During a runoff election last year, Santino, a former probate and guardianship attorney, blasted her opponent, Gregg Lerman, as someone who represented “murderers, rapists, child molesters and other criminals.” The JQC panel found the statements, repeated in campaign literature and on a Facebook page, were clear campaign violations. One panelist wondered aloud during a hearing on the matter whether Santino’s lack of understanding of the rules was a reflection of a lack of understanding of the law.

In the JQC’s 12-page response Monday, Williams was dismissive of claims from Santino’s attorney, Jeremy Kroll, who last month said Santino has had a stellar record in the year she’s spent on the bench. Kroll said the fact that Santino had the JQC complaint hanging over her since the election has prompted her to be on her best behavior.

If the Supreme Court were to reject the panel’s recommendation and allow Santino to keep her job, Williams wrote, it could set a bad precedent for future judicial candidates.

“Next time, it might be a ‘plaintiff’s attorney’ who won a campaign after denigrating his or her opponent, an insurance defense attorney, as a shameless defender of big insurance companies, and someone who lacks empathy for people who are injured in auto or work accidents,” Williams wrote.

The Supreme Court could elect to hear oral arguments before deciding what punishment to mete out. In the meantime, Santino remains on the county civil court bench, deciding eviction cases, landlord-tenant disputes and other lawsuits where less than $15,000 is at stake.



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