Former Broward Circuit Judge John Contini isn’t looking back.
Contini was disbarred Sept. 5 after he resigned his judgeship on July 6 amid a Judicial Qualifications Commission investigation and allegations he created fictitious dockets to avoid work.
Now, he says his days of practicing law feel far behind him.
“I suspect that that was another life,” Contini, 61, said about his 35 years in the legal profession. ”I don’t want to spend the next couple years of my life fighting for what I no longer enjoy practicing. That’s why I chose not to fight.”
Contini agreed to a five-year disbarment and has since taken up activism and opened his own mediation business.
“I can petition to have the license back in five years if I want to, but the odds are great, and I’m already enjoying what I’m doing,” he said.
Contini has joined two nonprofit organizations that have teamed to restore voting rights for felons in Florida — with the exception of sex offenders and murderers. He said he’s “not sitting around having a pity party or beating the victim drum,” and the career switch is “what’s in his DNA.”
The way Contini sees it, he was a better mediator on the bench than he was a judge, something he felt was evidenced by a case count that “plummeted” under his watch.
“For all the accusations against me, I went from 1,150 cases that I inherited when I beat the incumbent judge, and I brought it down to 717, the lowest case count in the courthouse,” he said.
‘I Wasn’t a Very Good Fit ’
The JQC’s complaint against Contini alleged that he took more than 30 days off work without informing Chief Judge Jack Tuter.
“There’s clearly not a work-ethic issue here. I just took a lot of those cases out of the courthouse and I worked on them in my own time in a more joyful ambiance — in my favorite bakery, as an example,” Contini said. “We had hundreds of emails sent at 10 p.m., 11 p.m. at night resolving all these cases and writing all these orders. That would all be shown in a trial one day, but we opted not to go through all that because it would be too exhausting and financially depleting. It would take years, and put my family through too much hell and grief. I don’t want to fight for it anymore. I’ve moved on.”
Contini also allegedly had his assistant run personal errands for him, including management of bills and finances, travel plans and other nonjudicial matters, despite the employee’s objections.
“I was always a little different as a judge. My remarks at one point were considered intemperance. I would talk too street, if you will,” he said. “Other times, it seems that I wasn’t a very good fit in terms of the way they liked to see you follow the old guard.”
In all, the JQC charged Contini with violating 10 canons of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, and also made allegations about his courtroom manner.
“As a judge, they want you to be an umpire and call balls and strikes only, and let the better lawyer win. It was hard for me to do that when I would see an injustice occurring in front of me every 30 minutes,” Contini said.
Contini spent the final four years of a 35-year legal career as a judge in Broward Circuit’s family division. Before that, he was a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney.
“That’s more than half my life. That’s enough. I don’t need to practice law anymore,” he said. “I’ll miss my endearing friendships with many of my colleagues, lawyers and judges alike, and I wish them nothing but the best, but I’ve moved on to doing different things that I find more enjoyable.”
It was an unexpected ending for a man who said he wanted to become a judge to extend his contribution to his community.
“When I was a lawyer I could only help one family for the week or the month, and that was a good feeling, but I really wanted to help more people at a time,” he said.
But that feeling didn’t last, when the former mediator realized he wasn’t a good fit for the bench.
“It was happening throughout the four years, as there was a number of times I was too outspoken and was caused to have to go to Orlando the JQC,” he said. ”A judge is supposed to listen more and speak less, and be essentially an umpire. But when I saw any kind of injustice in front of me I would always get too involved.”
‘Nobody Really Wants to Be There’
Contini also said he won’t miss the “toxic, oppressive environment” of the courthouse and its “adversarial nature.”
“I’m blessed to be away from the adversity and all of the oppression that exists in that system. After 35 years, that takes a toll on anybody,” he said. “Nobody really wants to be there. They’re there because they’re either suing somebody else or being sued, going through a divorce or prosecution. It’s a very unhappy environment.”
But Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter disagreed.
“Being a judge is an extraordinarily privileged job, and we all take very seriously what we do here at the courthouse,” Tuter said. “I’m not aware of any complaints from John Contini to me while he was on the bench.”
Contini, meanwhile, has since turned his focus to the proposed Florida Amendment 4, Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, on the ballot this November.
“I was known as a second-chance judge, and that’s why I am excited to be bringing awareness to Amendment 4,” he said.
Florida is one of only four states in the nation that bar felons from voting, a policy Contini feels is ”unconscionable.”
Despite the allegations made against him in the latter part of his career, Contini felt he “honestly had a great run.”
“I helped a lot of people get second chances as a criminal defense lawyer. And as a judge, I was able to get many of the families to stop destroying each other’s lives,” he said. “I feel blessed that I had the chance to help all of those hurting families. I’d prefer to just move on with my life and wish everybody well.”