Santino asks Supreme Court not to kick her off Palm Beach County bench

Updated Nov 20, 2017
Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino presides over hearings in October. Santino is charged with violating four canons that dictate how judicial candidates are to behave, and faces potential removal from the bench for her attacks on criminal defense attorney Gregg Lerman during this past fall’s campaign. ( Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Emphasizing her good works since she took the bench in January, Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino on Monday urged the Florida Supreme Court to reject a recommendation that she be removed from office for blasting her opponent’s work as a defense attorney during her successful 2016 election campaign.

The test of whether someone should be removed from office isn’t their past transgressions, attorney Jeremy Kroll, who represents Santino, said in a 33-page brief filed with the state’s highest court. Rather, he said, it’s whether a judge is currently unfit for office.

While admitting that Santino, a former probate and guardianship attorney, erred by blasting attorney Gregg Lerman for representing “murderers, rapists, child molesters and other criminals,” he said she has apologized for her ill-advised attacks and has dedicated herself to being a fair and impartial judge.

“Despite Judge Santino’s campaign violations, the unrebutted evidence adduced of her exemplary performance as a jurist and her stellar background and character do not support a finding of present unfitness,” he wrote.

Kroll’s legal brief was filed nearly two months after a panel of the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission recommended Santino be stripped of her judicial robe.

“Her conduct was not simply the product of an isolated instance of indiscretion, a momentary lapse of judgment; or the exposure of human frailty from which we all suffer from time to time,” Sumter County Circuit Judge Michelle Morley wrote on behalf of the six-member panel. “The conduct here was repeated, intentional, direct action with a designed purpose which cast aspersions and doubt onto the heart of the judicial system.”

In his response, Kroll recounted the praise Santino received in August from fellow judges during a hearing before the panel of the judicial watchdog group. He noted that Palm Beach County’s then Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath, County Judge Ted Booras and other court officials credited Santino with taking steps to resolve cases quickly.

Kroll also pointed out that they said she has volunteered to oversee civil drug court on weekends and to help other judges. Booras, a former prosecutor who knew Santino when she worked as an intern in the state attorney’s office and as a probation officer, declared her “an excellent judge.”

Further, Kroll said the recommended punishment is far more severe than other judges, who have committed similar infractions, received. He cited cases of judges elsewhere in the state who have been allowed to remain on the bench even though they violated judicial canons by misrepresenting their opponents’ qualifications or inflating their own on the campaign trail.

Lerman, who filed the complaint against Santino with the watchdog group, said the punishment others received is immaterial. “So when does it stop?” he asked. “If as she told others — ‘It’s not a big deal. I’ll just pay a fine.’ — where does it stop? The carousel goes around and around and people continue to violate the rules.”

Critics have pointed out that her attacks on Lerman’s work as a defense lawyer ignored bedrock constitutional rights, such as the right to counsel and innocent until proven guilty. Similarly, the panel said Santino’s campaign strategy was an attack on the judicial system.

“Her entire campaign was inflammatory and rife with innuendo,” Morley said. “She repeatedly implied that representing persons charged with crimes was, by its very nature, dishonorable and antithetical to the public good.”

The panel will be allowed to respond to Santino’s claims. Then, 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.