About a year ago, I wrote a post here about a judge who engaged in the practice of law. See Practice of Law (July 2021). The story is about a Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) report recommending discipline for a constitutional judge in Florida. The judge had been accused of practicing law on behalf of her son. I noted there that the story was rife with "reminders for judges."
Those included that judges have to remain aware of the actions and words of their staff; the Code of Judicial Conduct requires it. Furthermore, judges cannot practice law. There is an ever-present potential that some family member of a judge may fall into jeopardy and perhaps those are the times a judge must most forcefully remind her/himself of the Code. Those are times in which emotion may override judgement? In that instance, I suggested it would be interesting to see how the Supreme Court resolved the issue later in the fall. I was wrong about the timing.
On May 19, 2022, the Florida Supreme Court issued its decision in SC-20-605, Inquiry Concerning a Judge Re Barbara Kaye Hobbs. The Court noted that following a hearing the judge was "found . . . guilty of the three charges for which she had conceded guilt and one additional charge." The Hearing Panel "recommended that she be publicly reprimanded, suspended from office without pay for sixty days, and compelled to attend an employee management program."
The JQC argued to the Court that the judge should have been found "guilty as to all of the charges and that the seriousness of her misconduct warrants harsher discipline, up to removal from the bench." The Court agreed as to the additional finding of guilt and the insufficiency of the proposed punishment, but disagreed that removal from office would be appropriate.
The Court was specific and critical as to the actions of the judicial assistant, for which the hearing panel had determined the judge was guilty. However, it is worth reiterating. It noted that "Judge Hobbs knew of the serious ethical breach by her judicial assistant and took no steps to counsel her, even after being directed by her chief judge to do so." The Court concluded that the assistant's actions could have been avoided "if she had taken appropriate action." And, as the judge did not, the "rules appropriately hold Judge Hobbs responsible for all of the actions of her assistant that could have been avoided."
Notably, those judicial assistant infractions occurred later. They are perhaps different than the judge's initial and immediate decision(s) to claim to represent her son following the alleged shooting. The judge's error in that emotional moment are perhaps more excusable or at least understandable than the failures to supervise staff and to correct behavior ("even after being directed by her chief judge to do so."). There is an expectation that we will strive to remediate mistakes or errors.
As to one of those actions, the "judicial assistant's actions regarding the security badge," the Court held the Hearing Panel was incorrect and the Court concluded that despite the conduct being “so beyond the mainstream and improbable as to be unforeseeable by anyone,” the judge was nonetheless guilty. It explained that the assistant overall lacked "perspective, sense of propriety, and professional judgment" in her behavior, and thus "it is appropriate to hold Judge Hobbs accountable for her own failure to supervise, even if the specific preference given to her son may have seemed improbable before it occurred." The import is that the judge's overall deference to this staff member was inappropriate.
The Court reminded that it “gives the findings and recommendations of the JQC great weight.” However, that it not bound by those conclusions. It acknowledged the JQC recommendation that the judge's actions "demonstrate() unfitness to hold judicial office that warrants removal." However, the Court explained that "removal is the most severe form of discipline a judge may face, and it is typically reserved for when a judge" has committed intentional, “serious, and grievous wrongs of a clearly unredeeming nature.”
The Court concluded that the record demonstrated "a failure of judgment and a lack of appropriate boundaries between her judicial office and her personal life that cannot be tolerated." Furthermore, it reminded that “[A] ‘judge is a judge 7 days a week, 24 hours a day,'” an admonition that every judge might well bear in mind. The Court held that "Judge Hobbs's misconduct goes to the heart of the public's ability to trust Florida's judges." Therefore, it elected to suspend the judge "for sixty days without pay" and to order that she "pay a fine of $30,000." The judge was further ordered "to attend an employee management program" in hopes of better staff management.
In terms of impact, the salary of a Circuit judge is $165,509. Thus, sixty day's earnings is $27,207.00 ($165,509/365 = $453.45; x 60). The fine of $30,000 more than doubles that, a total of $57,207 in financial impact, almost 35% of the annual salary. Overall, the impact is significant. The Court's reminders and explanations provide guidance for all judges. It is imperative that judges govern themselves at all times with the Court's admonitions in mind, remembering the potential for public scrutiny and financial penalty for direct failures and more indirectly those of the staff we supervise (or fail to).
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