March 13, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Electing judges is a pretty bad idea, but most jurisdictions have rules that at least nod towards the principle that judges are not (or at least, not supposed to be) politicians, and that they should govern themselves with more dignity and respect for the office than the people who are running for, say, President. Not so much Judge Dana Santino of Palm Beach County, Florida:
On Monday, the investigative panel of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission filed charges with the Florida Supreme Court against Santino alleging she violated a judicial canon that declares a candidate for judge must maintain the “dignity appropriate to the judicial office.”
While locked in a tight race against Scott Lerman, Santino’s campaign did the following:
(i) Sent an email contrasting Santino’s experience as a probation officer and victim advocate with Lerman’s practice, which was “limited to criminal defense – representing murderers, rapists, child molesters and other criminals.”
(ii) When the newspaper asked about her comments, she responded: “I completely respect, and I’m proud of our justice system, and while every person is entitled to a defense, Mr. Lerman is not a public defender, and chooses to represent individuals who commit heinous crimes.” This bit is interesting, because apparently Santino had also worked for the Public Defender’s Office at some point. Never mind that any criminal defense attorney, public or private, isn’t gonna be worth a damn unless he cares about his clients and is interested in the work.
(iii) A political consultancy working for her campaign produced a Facebook page with the following gems:
“Attorney Gregg Lerman has made a lot of money trying to free Palm Beach County’s worst criminals. Now he’s running for judge!” Below that, a photograph of Mr. Lerman was surrounded by the words, “CHILD PORNOGRAPHY,” “DRUG TRAFFICKING,” “MURDER,” “Identity Theft,” “RAPE,” “Sexual Assault,” “Internet Solicitation of Minors,” and “PEDOPHILES.” [emphasis added]
The Facebook page also made reference to four cases in which Lerman had represented defendants in high-profile cases. In three of them, he was court-appointed, so apparently Santino is a hypocrite as well as stupid.
When Lerman and the Palm Beach County Bar Association’s Judicial Campaign Practice Commission called her out, she doubled down:
In responding to the JCPC complaint, you steadfastly defended your conduct by stating that; (1) your email truthfully states Mr. Lerman’s experience, (2) that the Facebook post was made by an ECO independent of you, and is truthful, including the statement that Mr. Lerman has made a lot of money representing criminal defendants, and (3) that the statements in the e-mail, in the Facebook post, and to the Palm Beach Post merely are efforts to highlight the differences bet ween you and Mr. Lerman. Specifically, your response to the JCPC stated, “I have been an advocate for the victims of rape, homicide and domestic violence while Mr. Lerman has chosen to represent the criminal defendants convicted of those crimes.”
Santino beat Lerman in a tight race, with a margin of victory of about two percent. Her seat secure, her tone changed immediately. Apparently, between election and her testimony to the JCPC she found the time to read Canon 7 of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, and decided that she was “remorseful” and “apologetic.”
She also “took full responsibility” for her actions and those of her campaign consultants. It’s too bad that she didn’t add that she had “found religion,” because that would have made her collection of every clichéd sentencing argument complete.
To their credit, the JCPC wasn’t having it:
When your appearance before the Investigative Panel is contrasted with your prior repeated, and steadfast defense of your misconduct, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that you and your campaign consultants employed a ‘win-at-all-costs,’ and pay the fine later strategy.
Exactly right. So the question is, what happens now? One of two things: either the JCPC imposes serious consequences on her (like a long suspension or removal) or they give her a stern talking-to and some third-degree finger wagging. If it’s the latter, what exactly is supposed to stop Santino (or the next Santino) from repeating the same disgusting conduct and claiming she’s sorry afterwards?
In the larger sense, though, the problem isn’t with Santino, it’s with the electorate. Santino won her race by 13,282 votes out of 465,336 cast. How many people voted for her (or against Lerman) because they’re so stupid that a Facebook page with PEDOPHILE in a large font next to Lerman’s picture was enough to make up their minds? There’s no way to tell, but every single one of them is living proof of Winston Churchill’s maxim that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”