Too little, too late

Each year, 10-12 judges are removed as a result of state discipline proceedings for a wide variety of reasons. But one aggravating factor present in many of the cases is a lack of candor and contrition, whatever the underlying misconduct may be. In the latest example, last week, the Florida Supreme Court removed a judge for operating a for-profit business from her judicial chambers and related misconduct — including her conduct during the disciplinary proceedings.

The judge had given materially misleading and incomplete statements during her deposition, refused to answer relevant questions during the investigation, and refused to turn over relevant documents even after being ordered to do so. “Especially distressing,” the Court stated was the judge’s deletion of “financial data in the early morning hours of the day of her deposition” after that data had been subpoenaed and the judge had agreed to produce it. The Court emphasized:

Compliance with the law includes compliance with the rules of procedure that govern this proceeding and with the lawful orders of the Investigative Panel and the Hearing Panel. Noncompliance, obfuscation, and avoidance of those rules and orders are not justified by a judge regardless of whether the judge personally believes the investigation is unwarranted. . . .

In defending her conduct, Judge Hawkins asserted that her faith instructed her to hold fast to her innocence and “fight the good fight.” We agree with the Commission that obfuscation and frustration of proper discovery, and refusal to answer questions posed by the Investigative Panel, Judicial Qualifications Commission counsel, the Investigator, and the Hearing Panel, do not constitute fighting the “good fight.”

Noting that in other cases it had given favorable consideration to a judge’s acceptance of responsibility for his or her actions, the Court stated that Judge Hawkins “did not show acceptance of responsibility for her actions, or acknowledge their impropriety, until her response to the second order to show cause why removal from office is not the appropriate sanction.”

Only in her final words in that response did Judge Hawkins state “I apologize to the Investigative Panel of the [Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission] for my responses, to all of the people that were affected by my actions, and to all the Justices of this Court.” While this statement extends an apology, albeit a belated one given only when faced with the possibility of removal, it fails to accept responsibility for her actions or acknowledge their impropriety. Further, Judge Hawkins’ apology fails to overcome the grievous nature of her conduct during this proceeding, which was “fundamentally inconsistent with the responsibilities of judicial office” and which “struck at the heart of judicial integrity.”

It is impossible know whether the judge would still be in office had she not displayed “an extreme lack of candor,” but cooperation and explanation (not necessarily confession) are obviously the better defense and more consistent with the trust a judge should show in due process.

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