The Judicial Qualifications Commission reviews complaints and can recommend sanctions.
Judges are human. That means they can make a mistake.
Judges also are those chosen to make decisions that can change people’s lives or even revoke their right to liberty. That means they must be held to the highest standards.
The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission and The Florida Bar presented a webinar Aug. 26 that outlined those standards and explained what happens when they are violated.
The commission processes, reviews and investigates complaints lodged against circuit, county and appellate judges and state Supreme Court justices.
Its 15 members comprise two circuit court judges, two county judges and two district judges appointed by the state’s judicial conferences; four attorneys appointed by The Florida Bar; and five nonlawyers appointed by the governor.
In other states, the judicial review commissions comprise only judges and lawyers, said Blan Teagle, the commission’s executive director.
“All stakeholders have a seat at the table in Florida,” Teagle said.
Having an independent and diverse commission to review complaints ensures that disciplinary actions related to judges is not driven by public outcry or politics, he said.
Judges are bound by the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. It governs how they conduct themselves in the courthouse and extracurricular activities, their personal lives and campaigns for election.
“A judge is a judge 24/7. Judges have a life apart from the bench, but must avoid conflict of interest with judicial responsibilities. Each judge’s conduct reflects on the judiciary as a whole,” Teagle said.
Despite its name, the commission does not evaluate whether someone is qualified to be a judge or judicial policies. It has no jurisdiction over decisions made by judges.
“That’s for the appellate courts, unless it’s willful or persistent to not follow the law,” said Alex Williams, the commission’s general counsel.
A complaint may be filed by anyone, including litigants, lawyers and fellow judges. The commission also may monitor news reports, the internet and social media, Williams said.
If a complaint is found to have possible merit, it is turned over to an investigative panel comprising commission members, similar to a grand jury.
If the investigative panel determines there is probable cause that a judge has violated the code of conduct, the judge may agree to a sanction that is subject to approval by the state Supreme Court, which has authority over attorneys and judges in Florida.
If the accused judge declines sanction at that point, the complaint is turned over to a hearing panel comprising other commission members that has the power to subpoena documents and witnesses.
After examining the evidence, the hearing panel may submit formal charges and a recommendation to the state Supreme Court.
Sanctions may be in the form of public reprimand, when a judge found to have violated the code of conduct appears before the justices in a proceeding that is televised and recorded.
“It’s not a slap on the wrist. It’s pretty humbling,” Williams said.
A fine may be levied and a judge may be suspended or even removed from office, depending on the infraction and circumstances.
The commission receives more than 500 complaints each year, but few are submitted to the highest court after the investigation.
In the past 15 months, seven judges that were the subjects of three complaints have been reprimanded by the court, according to floridajqc.com, the commission’s website:
• A judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami-Dade County was reprimanded for improper conduct while trying to quiet a crowded and noisy hallway outside his courtroom, during which he inappropriately threatened a court employee with contempt for shaking her head at him.
• Five judges from the 11th Judicial Circuit were reprimanded for improperly interfering in a contract procurement process being run by the Florida Department of Children and Families.
They each signed a letter advocating on behalf of a private company that was one of only two companies bidding to become the primary services provider in South Florida for DCF, worth about $500 million over five years.
In a stipulation with the commission, the judges acknowledged that while they intended for the letter to be informational, it crossed the line into lending the prestige of judicial office to advance the interest of a private entity and created the appearance of impropriety.
• A judge in the 17th Judicial Circuit in Broward County was publicly reprimanded, appearing before the state Supreme Court after the court accepted the findings and recommendation of the commission’s investigative panel, filed as part of a stipulation.
The judge admitted to violating the code of conduct by using the endorsement of a political organization in his judicial campaign. The judge also disclosed his personal political party affiliation during an endorsement interview with a newspaper editorial board.