Many people involved in a car accident or slip and fall case who want to file a personal injury lawsuit in Florida often ask me, “Who will the judge be for my personal injury trial,” or “What are my judge’s qualifications?” I am a practicing civil lawyer and have had hundreds of car accident cases in Broward County, Miami, Monroe, and Palm Beach over the last 22 years, but I am still often surprised to learn that many of my clients do not know that the judge that will eventually preside over their case is a lawyer and at one time actually practiced law.
For personal injury cases, like accidents at a South Beach are litigated in a Florida State Court as opposed to a Federal Court–like the lawsuit our Miami law firm is suing Shuckers Bar and Grill for the negligent maintenance of its restaurant’s deck–the judge assigned to the lawsuit is obligated to comply with the rules and regulations of Florida’s 15-member Judicial Qualifications Committee (JQC), the Florida Bar, and the Codes of Judicial Conduct. For example, one of the most interesting rules of Judicial Conduct limits the amount of a gift a judge can receive ($100) from a single person each year and requires judges to file a sworn inventory of all gifts in excess of $100 to be reported to the JQC.
The 1968 revisions to Florida’s Constitution created the 15-member JQC to serve as an independent agency that has its own set of rules solely to investigate misconduct by any of Florida’s Supreme Court Justices, appellate court judges, state court judges, or county court judges. The JQC is not a part of either the Florida Supreme Court or any other judicial system as it operates under rules it establishes for itself and is composed of a mixture of appellate court judges, circuit court judges, county court judges, lawyers who are registered voters, and five non-lawyers who are registered voters, chosen by Florida’s Governor.
The JQC’s authority is limited only to Florida state court judges and does not extend to federal judges, magistrates, state attorneys, public defenders, or judges in any other state or jurisdiction.
How Do I File a Complaint Against a Judge in Florida?
Anyone can file a complaint against a judge in Florida, provided that it is done in writing to the JQC–not to Florida’s Supreme Court or with any other state court or judge. The JQC’s website provides a downloadable complaint form.
The JQC is divided into two panels–one that investigates and prosecutes the complaint, and one that sits as judge and jury to decide if there are sufficient grounds to penalize the judge. Judges who are subject to a JQC investigation often hire their own lawyers to represent them in both the investigation and hearing.
Pursuant to the Constitution, all complaints remain confidential until formal charges stemming from the complaint are brought against the judge. A complaint becomes public record only when the JQC files a Notice of Formal Charges with the Supreme Court, which serves merely as the custodian of the records of the investigation; the Supreme Court does not have authority to act until the JQC completes its investigation.
Once the JQC concludes its investigation and hearings, it files its findings and recommendations for discipline with the Supreme Court. Occasionally, if the accused judge agrees (known as a stipulation) with the JQC’s recommendations, the stipulation is filed with the Supreme Court, which must then must decide if it wants to hear an oral argument. If oral argument is scheduled, the Supreme Court announces it on its website, the Court’s Press Summaries.
What Kind of Penalties for Misconduct Can Be Assessed Against a Judge in Florida?
Penalties for judicial misconduct in Florida range from nothing to removal from the bench and recommendation for disbarment. I have been a practicing personal injury attorney in Broward for over twenty years and was very disappointed to learn that Broward Circuit Judge Ana Gardiner enjoyed an “unusual relationship” with a State Attorney who was trying a murder trial in her court. During the trial, she and prosecutor Howard Scheinberg exchanged hundreds of phone calls and texts over a 155-day period in 2007. The defendant, Omar Loureiro, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. His defense lawyers filed a complaint with the JQC, whose investigation revealed that the lawyer and judge averaged nearly 10 ex parte communications a day, adding up to 949 calls and 471 text messages.
The Florida Bar announced yesterday that it will suspend the lawyer’s license for two years;. Initially the Bar recommended a one-year suspension, but the Supreme Court–in an unusual move–ignored the Bar’s recommendation by adding an additional year to the sentence.
The harsh ruling is not a good sign for Gardiner, who is awaiting her fate. She was found guilty of lying in her JQC hearing, and the JDC recommended a one-year suspension. However, in light of Scheinberg’s suspension, I predict she will be permanently disbarred. To learn more about this case please read my recent blog in the Huffington Post: “Judge and Prosecutor Secretly Texting During Murder Trial.”
If you have a question regarding a potential personal injury case in Florida, please contact me Spencer Aronfeld or call our Miami attorneys at 305-441-0440 for a free initial consultation regarding your legal rights.