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Santino: Removal from office for election infraction unconstitutional


In what is likely Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino’s last chance to convince the Florida Supreme Court not to remove her from office, she insisted on Tuesday that other judges have been allowed to keep their jobs after committing far more serious infractions.

Removing Santino for blasting her 2016 opponent for representing “murderers, rapists, child molesters and other criminals” would be contrary to 30 years of precedent and also run afoul of the Florida Constitution, her attorney, Jeremy Kroll, wrote in a 21-page brief to the state’s high court.

“This court’s sole function is to determine whether Judge Santino is ‘presently unfit’ and, if the evidence does not demonstrate present unfitness, removal is not a lawful or appropriate sanction pursuant to Article V (of the Florida Constitution)” Kroll wrote. He cited other cases where judges have been fined, not removed from office, for more egregious campaign violations.

Santino admits she was wrong for bolstering her judicial aspirations by attacking the work her opponent, Gregg Lerman, does as a defense attorney. But Kroll argued that Santino, a former guardianship attorney, has worked hard and proven herself to be a good judge since taking office in January. At a hearing before a panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission in August, Kroll noted that two judges praised Santino’s work ethic.

While acknowledging that she deserves “a severe sanction,” Kroll said the judicial watchdog group’s recommendation that Santino be removed from office is unfair, unfounded and unconstitutional.

It is likely the last legal papers that will be filed with the state’s high court. While justices could ask for oral arguments, they typically discipline judges after reviewing legal documents that have been filed.

In court papers, an attorney for the judicial commission has urged the high court to remove Santino, saying she put winning ahead of judicial canons. She knew her conduct was wrong, but believed she would only be forced to pay a fine, wrote JQC attorney Alexander Williams.

In a dissent in a 2002 disciplinary case where the high court forced a judge to pay $50,000 fine for similar campaign antics, Justice R. Fred Lewis warned his colleagues: “Selecting an enormous fine as discipline only sends the message that ‘anything goes’ in judicial elections if a candidate has the financial ability to pay the monetary consequences.”

Santino’s behavior confirms Lewis’ fears, Williams wrote. Santino, he wrote, illustrates a dangerous “win-at-all-costs-and-pay-the-fine-later” attitude, he said.

Further, he said, Santino’s attacks on Lerman were attacks on bedrock Constitutional principles of innocent until proven guilty and the rights of those accused of crimes to be represented by attorneys. By implying that Lerman would be soft on crime while she would be tough, Santino “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,” he wrote.



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