For the second time in seven days, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday removed a judge from office after an investigation into misconduct in an election campaign.
Justices, in a 4-3 decision, issued an order removing Palm Beach County Judge Dana Marie Santino from the bench as of 5 p.m. Monday because of attacks on an opponent during a 2016 campaign. The move came a week after the Supreme Court removed 7th Judicial Circuit Judge Scott DuPont, who heard cases in Putnam and Flagler counties.
The Supreme Court said a full opinion in the Santino case will be issued later, but justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Jorge Labarga supported the judge’s removal. Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson dissented.
The decisions in the Santino and DuPont cases came as justices have shown in recent years an increased intolerance for ethical and behavioral lapses by judges. The decisions also came amid elections this year for judicial seats in numerous parts of the state.
The state Judicial Qualifications Commission investigated Santino because of allegations that she and a Facebook page linked to her campaign consultant impugned her 2016 election opponent, Gregg Lerman, because of his work as a defense attorney.
The Facebook page, for example, said “Attorney Gregg Lerman has made a lot of money trying to free Palm Beach County’s worst criminals. Now he’s running for judge!” It also included a photo of Lerman surrounded by words such as “identity theft,” “rape,” “sexual assault,” “pedophiles” and “murder,” according to a report last year by a hearing panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission.
The report, which recommended Santino’s removal from office, also pointed to comments made by Santino during the campaign about Lerman’s background as a defense attorney. Santino defeated Lerman in the November 2016 election.
“Candidate Santino did not merely compare her background, qualifications, character and integrity with that of her opponent,” the report said. “She imputed guilt to those that were merely accused. She also expressly stated and implied that Lerman was not impartial, was predisposed to favor criminals, while she was predisposed to victims, and courted votes based on each candidate’s supposed predisposition. Her entire campaign was inflammatory and rife with innuendo. She repeatedly implied that representing persons charged with crimes was, by its very nature, dishonorable and antithetical to the public good.”
But in a document filed in November at the Supreme Court, Santino’s attorneys argued she should not be removed from office, saying that the “campaign violations — considering this (Supreme) Court’s prior campaign violation precedent as well as Judge Santino’s background, character and performance as a judge — do not establish evidence of ‘present unfitness to hold office.’ ”
“Her campaign violations were wrong, and she fully acknowledges her mistakes,” the document said. “This Honorable Court should … levy a serious sanction consistent with this misconduct. As a matter of law, however, in light of her ‘excellent’ work as a judge, lack of any prior Florida Bar discipline, character and mitigation, and full acceptance of responsibility, this record does not demonstrate present unfitness to hold office, and, under Article V (of the Florida Constitution), does not implicate removal.”
The decision in the Santino case followed the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision June 25 to remove DuPont from his post in the 7th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Putnam, Flagler, St. Johns and Volusia counties. DuPont was accused of publishing false allegations against his 2016 election challenger and was investigated for other actions while on the bench.