Now that she is a Palm Beach County judge, Dana Santino wants to be forgiven for the campaign that got her on the bench. The Florida Supreme Court should give her no pass. Instead, it should show her the door.
Last November, Santino defeated Gregg Lerman for the Group 11 county court seat. Even before Election Day, Santino was in trouble because of her campaign tactics.
In an October email, she described herself as an advocate for victims of violent crimes. In contrast, the email said, Lerman’s work was “limited to criminal defense — representing murderers, rapists, child molesters and other criminals.”
The email was roundly criticized not only for its criticism of defense attorneys, but for what it said about the constitutional right of criminal defendants to be represented by counsel.
Yet Santino persisted.
“I completely respect, and I’m proud of our justice system,” she told The Palm Beach Post, “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.”
Santino, it would seem, presumes people charged with heinous crimes are all guilty.
Her consultants piled on. They created a Facebook page linking Lerman to child pornography, drug trafficking, murder, rape and pedophilia — because of his clients. The site listed defendants Lerman “chose to represent.” In fact, a judge appointed Lerman as defense counsel in several of the cases.
A week before the election, by a vote of 11-0, the Judicial Campaign Practices Commission said Santino had violated the canons of conduct for judicial candidates. Santino blew that off as “their opinion.”
In March, however, acting on a complaint from Lerman, the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) found probable cause to charge Santino for violating judicial campaign standards. During the investigation, Santino became remorseful and wrote an apology to Lerman.
The panel noted the contrast, saying that “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. This conduct is antithetical to the conduct expected of judicial candidates.”
This week, Santino appeared before the JQC panel that will recommend to the Florida Supreme Court whether she should be removed from the bench. She proposes a plea deal — a public reprimand and a $50,000 fine.
But it’s hard to believe Santino has learned from her mistakes. The campaign days were long, she told the panel. She placed too much trust in her campaign consultant, Patriot Games. She was a “political neophyte.” Actually, Santino was determined to win, even if that meant trashing the person who gave her the chance.
Gov. Rick Scott had wanted to fill the seat by appointment. Lerman sued, and the Florida Supreme Court agreed that voters should pick the next judge. Only then, after Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher reopened qualifying, did Santino enter the race, loaning herself roughly $125,000.
The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board endorsed Lerman in the race because his experience far surpassed hers. To us, it appeared Santino’s fear-mongering theme was aimed at undercutting his experience. As the JQC investigator wrote, “It was not until the specter of real sanctions appeared that Judge Santino changed her tune and became remorseful.”
The Florida Supreme Court once routinely approved plea deals like the one proposed by Santino. Fortunately, the current court has been much tougher.
Last year, Broward circuit judges Cynthia Imperato and Lynn Rosenthal tried to cut deals for charges relating to DUI arrests. In both cases, the court resisted. Eventually, knowing they faced removal, Imperato and Rosenthal resigned.
Santino faces no criminal violation, but her actions are far more serious. They threaten the integrity of Florida’s independent judiciary and public confidence that every defendant will get a fair shake.
Santino serves in civil court. If she ever was assigned to the criminal division, we’d expect every defense lawyer to seek her removal, based on those campaign comments. By seeking to remain in office, Santino is asking her colleagues to work around her considerable problem.
Though Santino supporters speak of her good work on the bench, the six members of the hearing panel — Santino’s jury — seemed properly skeptical. Sumter County Circuit Judge Michelle Morley, the chairwoman, said of Santino: “You don’t seem to understand or appreciate” what the rules require.
We give the last word to JQC Special Counsel Alexander Williams. Santino’s comments, he wrote, “delivered a hammer blow to the heart of the judiciary, which is precisely why the tactic was so successful.”
“In attacking her opponent,” he said, “Judge Santino also struck a foul blow to a fundamental precept of the judicial system, calling into question her opponent, as well as her own ability to be fair and impartial on the bench.”
Case closed. Santino should go.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Elana Simms, Gary Stein and Editor-in-Chief .