County Judge Santino’s future on bench now up to state panel

Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino on Wednesday tearfully apologized for currying votes in 2016 by blasting her opponent for representing “murderers, rapists, child molesters and other criminals.” She admitted she made “a terrible mistake” and violated judicial canons. She summoned judges and others to testify about her life of good works.

But, at the end of an emotional seven-hour hearing, it was unclear whether Santino would be allowed to remain on the county court bench for her attacks on criminal defense attorney Gregg Lerman during this past fall’s campaign.

The decision is now in the hands of a six-member panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which said it would make a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court in several weeks.

But when grilling Santino on Wednesday, panelists left little doubt that they believed her attacks raised questions about her understanding of the bedrock principles of the U.S. Constitution and about her ability to continue to serve as a judge.

“Is your understanding of Canon 7 indicative of your ability to apply the law?” 5th Judicial Circuit Judge Michelle Morley asked Santino pointedly, referring to judicial rules the first-year judge swore to uphold and then violated.

Santino, a former probate and guardianship attorney, struggled to explain her actions. The rigors of the campaign left her exhausted and unable to think straight, she said. When her political consultant, Richard Giorgio, insisted she was on firm legal ground, she believed him, she said.

“I was a political neophyte,” the 49-year-old said. “I relied on my campaign manager to help me.”

Morley and other panelists were unimpressed.

“Frankly, I’m taking offense that you think you’re the only person who has ever run for office,” Morley said. “You should be excused because you were tired? You should be excused because you relied on Mr. Giorgio?”

Other panelists focused on her cavalier response to those who warned her that her comments were inappropriate. She ignored an advisory committee of the Palm Beach County Bar Association when it unanimously ruled that her attacks on Lerman violated judicial canons. Instead, Santino told The Palm Beach Post, “it is just that — their opinion.”

She testified that she ordered Giorgio to take down an offensive Facebook page that repeated the same allegations against Lerman and went further, saying, “Gregg Lerman has made a lot of money trying to free Palm Beach County’s worst criminals.”

Panelists said she could have done more.

“You never said to the citizens of Palm Beach County that the Facebook page was a violation of the rules I pledged to follow and it was deplorable?” asked panelist Mayanne Downs, an attorney.

“I did not,” Santino said.

Panelist Alvin Alsobrook, a former vice president of the University of Florida, wondered why Santino didn’t fire Giorgio if, as she claimed, he posted the Facebook page without her permission.

“I did not fire him and I should have,” she said.

While Giorgio’s actions loomed large at the hearing, he did not testify. Instead, he submitted a sworn statement, explaining his role in Santino’s campaign.

The hearing in the small courtroom was packed with Santino supporters. Judges and attorneys stopped in to watch the unusual proceedings.

While two other Palm Beach County judges have been accused by the judicial watchdog group of violating judicial canons, both settled their cases before hearings were held. County Judge Barry Cohen in 2014 accepted a public reprimand from the Florida Supreme Court after admitting he used the bench as a bully pulpit to express his liberal views. Circuit Judge Howard Berman resigned in 2001, days before a panel was to hear testimony about sexual harassment allegations.

Alexander Williams, a special counsel for the investigative arm of the JQC, insisted Santino should be removed from office.

“She maligned an honorable profession, she attacked fundamental principles of the justice system and, on top of that, Judge Santino ignored numerous warnings about the conduct,” he said.

Williams said the Supreme Court has made clear in recent years that judicial candidates will pay a high price for misconduct. Adopting a “win at all costs” strategy, Santino used scare tactics to paint Lerman as someone would coddle criminals while she would not, he said.

“She needlessly and heedlessly attacked the most fundamental principles of the justice system to advance her own interests,” Williams said. Her attacks ignored constitutional right to counsel, to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence, he said.

Her attorney, Jeremy Kroll, agreed that Santino’s comments and the Facebook page were “atrocious.” But he said the test is whether she is fit to serve.

Pointing to testimony from Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath and County Judge Ted Booras, Kroll said Santino has excelled during the seven months she has been on the bench. In court papers, he suggested that she be publicly reprimanded and ordered to pay a $50,000 fine — a punishment imposed on an Escambia County judge for similar transgressions.

Williams countered that Santino should not be allowed to buy her way out of her misdeeds. He scoffed at Kroll’s claims that she has been a good judge since assigned to handle minor civil disputes, including landlord-tenant lawsuits.

“She’s been under investigation by the JQC since she took the bench,” Williams said. “To think she would not be on her best behavior is nonsensical.”

To allow her to remain on the bench would send a bad message to other candidates and undermine people’s trust in the judiciary, he said. “A judge cannot cheat to win a judicial office and then be allowed to retain that prize,” he said.

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