Approving the findings, conclusions, and recommendations of the Judicial Qualifications Commission based on a stipulation, the Florida Supreme Court publicly reprimanded in writing 5 judges for submitting a letter encouraging the Florida Department of Children and Families to award a contract to a particular vendor. Inquiry Concerning Lederman, Caballero, Figarola, Pooler, and Ruiz (Florida Supreme Court March 26, 2020). (The Court usually orders judges to appear before it for a public reprimand; a written reprimand is a less severe sanction, according to the Court.)
In March 2018, DCF initiated a competitive procurement process to award a contract for the lead agency for community-based care for the southern region of Florida. The contract was potentially worth more than $500 million over 5 years. 2 non-profit corporations submitted proposals: Our Kids of Miami-Dade and Monroe, Inc. and Citrus Health Network. Our Kids had held the contract and served as the lead agency over the preceding several years.
In September 2018, Judge Lederman drafted a letter advocating that Our Kids be selected as the lead agency, which she intended to send to DCF. She emailed the language to the 4 other judges and others, seeking additional signatories. Eventually, a letter written on Judge Lederman’s judicial letterhead and signed by the 5 judges was sent to the interim director of DCF and the managing director of the southern region of DCF. The letter endorsed Our Kids and concluded: “We have worked with Our Kids and we have complete faith only in the Our Kids model of leadership. When you select the agency please keep our voices in mind.”
In February 2019, the letter was mentioned in a local newspaper article entitled, “Alleged conflicts of interest roil $500 million child welfare fight.” DCF terminated the competitive procurement process and restarted it. There was no evidence that the judges’ letter affected DCF’s decision. Our Kids and Citrus Health Network were again the only 2 competitors. In April 2019, DCF awarded the contract to Citrus Health Network.
The Commission recommendation noted that, arguably, the judges could have written a letter “explaining their knowledge working with the provider in a much narrower context,” but concluded that the letter that was sent inappropriately placed the judges and the judiciary “in the position of appearing to advocate on behalf of one private entity over another.” The Commission found that the language of the letter raised questions about the judges’ impartiality, noting that “the employees and vendors of the Lead Agency regularly appear in court assisting and advocating on behalf of clients of DCF, and the agency” and that “such an enormous and hotly contested contract award will almost certainly result in legal challenges, and likely even court proceedings” in the judges’ circuit. The Commission emphasized that it did not believe that the judges had not been “motivated by any corrupt intent or design” and had intended “to protect the interests of the children and families served by DCF.“ However, it concluded, as the judges acknowledged, “their actions went too far in this instance.”
It is rare but not unprecedented for judicial discipline cases to involve more than 1 judge.
- Based on conditional agreements for discipline, the Indiana Supreme Court (a) suspended 2 judges for 30 days without pay for appearing intoxicated in public, behaving in an injudicious manner, and becoming involved in a verbal altercation outside a White Castle restaurant and (b) suspended 1 judge for 60 days for, in addition, becoming involved in a physical altercation for which he was criminally charged and convicted. In the Matter of Adams, Jacobs, and Bell, 134 N.E.3d 50 (Indiana 2019).
- Following a hearing on a complaint brought by the Judicial Inquiry Board, the Illinois Courts Commission (a) suspended 1 judge for 4 months without pay for presiding over cases in which the husband of a judge with whom he was having an affair represented a party without disclosing the relationship and for a pattern of deceptive conduct to hide the affair from the chief judge and (b) publicly censured the judge with whom he was having the affair for failing to take or initiate any appropriate disciplinary measures against him although she knew he was presiding over her husband’s cases. In re Drazewski and Foley, Order (Illinois Courts Commission March 11, 2016).
- The New York Court of Appeals (a) removed a judge for delaying repayment of a $250,000 loan from his campaign manager, failing to disclose the loan on financial statements and loan applications, and giving misleading and evasive testimony to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and (b) publicly censured a second judge, his brother who had co-signed the loan, for omitting it from financial statements and loan applications. In the Matter of Joseph Alessandro, In the Matter of Francis Alessandro, 918 N.E.2d 116 (New York 2009).