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Jax Daily Record Friday, Mar. 3, 201712:00 PM EST

Florida Supreme Court orders 6-month suspension for North Florida judge

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by: Dara Kam

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a six-month suspension and other penalties for a judge who has been the focus of potential impeachment proceedings launched by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The high court ordered the suspension of Circuit Judge Andrew Decker, a public reprimand and payment of costs following an investigation into wrongdoing before he was elected to the bench in 2012.

Decker is a judge in the 3rd Judicial Circuit, a sprawling rural area in North Florida made up of Columbia, Dixie, Hamilton, Lafayette, Madison, Suwannee and Taylor counties.

The court’s penalties were harsher than a 90-day suspension without pay recommended by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, a panel that oversees judges.

Decker last month was the focus of a probe by the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee as part of an attempt by Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, to shine a light on judicial wrongdoing and the time it takes for resolving investigations into the activities of judges.

Another judge targeted by the House committee — former 4th Judicial Circuit Judge Mark Hulsey — resigned the day before the committee began a public inquiry.

Decker was accused of a conflict of interest while representing clients as an attorney and of, among other things, declaring he was “pro-life” and Republican at campaign events before his election in 2012.

The judge’s lawyers maintained his comments were “political speech” protected by the First Amendment.

In March 2015, the Judicial Qualifications Commission recommended Decker receive a public reprimand and be suspended for 90 days without pay. Six months later, the Florida Supreme Court ordered Decker to show why he should not be removed from the bench.

“Judge Decker’s misconduct unquestionably warrants the imposition of a serious sanction,” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Peggy Quince, Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson wrote Thursday. Justices Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis concurred in a separate opinion.

The court found Decker violated campaign restrictions for judicial candidates and violated rules of professional conduct while working as an attorney for, among other things, failing to withdraw from a lawsuit because of conflicts of interest.

“All the violations established in this case demonstrate a pattern of poor judgment, and lack of concern for jointly represented clients and for other counsel and their clients,” the Supreme Court wrote.

But the majority also pointed out Decker’s misconduct did not result in any harm to his clients or anyone else.

“Although the series of acts by Judge Decker involving misconduct requires the imposition of a serious sanction, we have concluded it does not merit removal from office,” the opinion said.

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