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Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee, Fla., are pushing for a constitutional amendment to make disciplinary complaints against state judges public — even if they’re dismissed after an investigation. Currently, a complaint is only made public when the Judicial Qualifications Commission investigates and deems it valid. If the Legislature passes the bill and Gov. Jeb Bush signs it, the proposal would be presented to voters in November. The only state that has a similar disclosure provision is New Hampshire. If approved, the change undoubtedly would raise the stakes for judges and complainants any time a complaint is filed. The original bill was sponsored by St. Petersburg-area Rep. Larry Crow, R-Palm Harbor; a companion bill was filed by Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, near Orlando. The bills were overwhelmingly approved by committees in both the House and Senate and are headed for floor votes in both bodies. If approved by voters in November, the amendment would take effect in July 2003. Judge James R. Wolf of the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee and chairman of Florida’s JQC, which investigates complaints against judges, calls the proposed change “a bad idea.” He warned that it would create a chilling effect on “whistle blowers.” The bill is the latest effort by GOP lawmakers to bring about what they consider greater judicial accountability to the public and to the Legislature. Other pending bills would curb the powers of the Florida Supreme Court, as well as change the terms of supreme court justices and appellate judges and modify how they are appointed. Currently, the JQC — which is made up of six judges, four lawyers and five lay people — receives about 500 complaints a year about judges, with allegations ranging from rudeness to lawyers and litigants to sexual misconduct to alcoholism. An investigative panel of the JQC investigates all charges. JQC members who are judges are chosen by other judges, attorney members are chosen by the Florida Bar, and lay members are appointed by the governor. If the commission deems a charge valid — which only occurs in about 10 to 12 cases a year — charges are made public and a hearing is scheduled. If a charge is dismissed by the JQC’s hearing panel, the file is closed and never made public. But under the bill, charges would be made public along with the records of the case, even if the charge was dismissed after the hearing. The bill is a compromise from Crow’s original bill, which would have opened all judicial discipline proceedings at the point when the complaint was filed, even before an investigation took place. That bill was killed in the House Judicial Oversight Committee. Crow says he filed the bill in response to a scandal involving Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno, who was accused of having a sexual affair with a courthouse clerk and of breaking into another judge’s office. This was one of several recent sex-related allegations against judges in the Gulf Coast circuits. Six judges in the Tampa area have faced judicial ethics investigations in the last two years, and four have resigned. The JQC ultimately recommended that Bonanno receive a reprimand. As chairman of the House Judicial Oversight Committee, Crow was responsible for deciding whether to launch impeachment proceedings against Bonanno. “We thought the JQC had dropped the ball,” Crow says. “Bonanno had a whole litany of charges against him. This was the good ol’ boys network at play.” Last December, Bonanno resigned from the bench rather than face impeachment proceedings. But the incident prompted Crow’s bill for more public scrutiny of the JQC. “I sense all kinds of quirky things going on with the JQC,” he says. “I think this will flush them out real quick. I mean, 500 complaints are made to the JQC every year and probable cause is only found in 10 or 12. Doesn’t that sound a little fishy?” But state Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors and minority leader of the Judicial Oversight Committee, says he sees no need for the proposed changes. “Mr. Crow sponsored it because of an issue with a judge in his circuit,” Seiler says. “I don’t see a problem in Dade, Broward or Palm Beach. If the system is not broken, why fix it?” If complaint records are opened, Seiler warns, it will have a chilling effect on complaints. He said he probably will try to dilute the bill by inserting a number of exemptions that basically preserve the current judicial discipline process. New Hampshire changed its judicial discipline proceedings in 2000, after a judicial scandal eroded public confidence in the state’s Committee on Judicial Conduct. In that case, the supreme court chief justice faced impeachment charges stemming from complaints from three litigants that he failed to file decisions in a timely manner, made rude comments from the bench, and generally lacked a judicial temperament. “There was a lot of criticism in the way complaints were being handled by the committee, that administrative decisions were made in secret,” says Anthony McManus, executive secretary of New Hampshire’s Committee on Judicial Conduct. “The supreme court responded to the criticism and said, ‘We’re going to open up the process at an earlier stage.’ “ Florida is similar to most other states in the degree of openness of its judicial discipline process. Like Florida, 34 states allow public access to information at the point when their disciplinary body files formal charges against a judge. The remaining states only allow public access to information later in the process — at the start of the fact-finding hearing, when the disciplinary body files a recommendation for discipline with the state supreme court or when public discipline is ordered by the supreme court. Like Seiler, Judge Wolf cautioned about the bill’s potential chilling effect on complaints. “Eighty percent of our valid complaints that go forward come from judges, lawyers and court personnel,” he notes. “If their complaints became public, they would be known as complainers.” Additionally, Wolf adds, the JQC solicits resignations from two to three judges a year based on serious complaints. If this bill is passed, he says, the judges may opt not to resign, as the reasons would become public. But McManus says the changes in New Hampshire have not had a chilling affect on complaints, noting there has been no decrease in the number of complaints since the change went into effect. In his state, 90 percent of complaints are made by litigants. Cynthia Gray, director of the Center for Judicial Ethics for the American Judicature Society, says the majority of complaints throughout the country are made by litigants, not lawyers. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Celeste Muir says she opposes the proposed amendment “because there are people that are so vindictive and so punitive and because of the fact that not all things put in writing are worth reading.” Muir notes that the Legislature passed JQC reforms recently that expanded the range of disciplinary measures for judges, and that the commission should not be tinkered with again so soon. “I think the JQC does a great job under the current regime,” she says.

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