Palm Beach County Court Judge Dana Marie Santino’s judicial career is over following the Florida Supreme Court’s deliberations on her punishment for the unsavory advertising tactics she used against her opponent, criminal defense attorney Gregg S. Lerman, in the 2016 judicial election.
Justices hashed out their arguments in three separate opinions, with two justices arguing removal was too harsh and another claiming the high court didn’t go far enough in ruling against the jurist.
The court gave Santino same-day marching orders July 2 after the JQC charged Santino with violating five canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct, and two Rules Regulating the Florida Bar. The JQC had recommended the judge’s removal in September 2017, claiming she aimed “to win at all costs” and “pay the fine later.”
Santino allegedly paid consultants to create an array of campaign material for her, including a Facebook page titled “Taxpayers for Public Integrity.” Accompanying text went on to link her opponent to identity theft, rape, child pornography, drug trafficking and murder because of his work as a criminal defense attorney.
Santino at the time admitted to “making mistakes” during the election but denied that any of her actions violated Florida law, and insisted she was fit to remain on the bench.
The majority — Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy A. Quince, Jorge Labarga and Alan Lawson — ordered Santino’s removal. They found her conduct “does not evidence a present fitness to hold judicial office,” and ruled that a fine or suspension would confirm that her violations were “not a big deal.”
Justice R. Fred Lewis agreed Santino should be off the bench but wanted the court to go further, saying he couldn’t sign on to a majority opinion that wasn’t “fully developed and presented.”
“Today, the majority has chosen to sanitize and soften the facts surrounding the campaign misconduct committed in this case apparently in the interest of political correctness or for some other reason,” he wrote. “The circumstances of this case, however, are so egregious and so reprehensible that any attempt to refine them does a disservice to the bench and to our judicial system as a whole and it further diminishes the citizen’s trust in the judiciary beyond the damage that Santino has already inflicted.”
Lewis was particularly unhappy with the majority’s omission of photos of Santino’s ads, which he said showed “far more than words can ever convey.”
“These posts exhibit just how far Santino was willing to go, and how low she was willing to travel to win this election,” Lewis wrote in an opinion that published multiple screenshots of social media ads and photos.
One Facebook post read, “Instead of representing the victims of crime, Gregg Lerman chose to represent convicted serial killer Ronald Knight who targeted gay men and brutally murdered them. Now he’s running for judge!”
Justice Ricky Polston, with Chief Justice Charles T. Canady concurring, wrote that the decision to remove Santino is not consistent with the court’s precedent. He also noted that Santino had “expressed regret” for her actions.
Polston stressed that Santino didn’t break the law but violated campaign rules with “misrepresentations” that suggested Lerman “was unfit as he was pro-defense.” Instead, Polston supported suspending Santino for 90 days without pay and fining her $50,000 plus court costs.
“This is a strongly worded set of opinions from the court, which should clearly be read as a warning to future judicial candidates to closely follow the canons when running for judicial office and to avoid the kind of egregious misconduct demonstrated in this case,” said Alex Williams, assistant general counsel to the JQC.
The court also suggested that Santino might have been the first judge to lose her place on the bench over campaign misconduct, saying, “Even if we had not previously imposed the discipline of removal for violations of Canon 7 alone, nothing prohibited us from doing so here.”
“Mud-slinging, name calling and ignoring the rules when you’re the person who’s supposed to be applying the rules is not acceptable,” said defense attorney Lerman, the victim of Santino’s misconduct.
Lerman said he wasn’t shocked by the decision, but was pleased that the court “wanted to send a strong message.”
“I’ve been hearing things from other people who think that candidates still haven’t learned their lessons from Ms. Santino and the way she ran her race. While it’s an election, you’re not really a politician. When you’re seeking an office that rises to the level of judgeship, people expect you to act differently.”
Santino’s former colleagues vouched for her character at a hearing before the JQC, which the court considered a mitigating factor in its decision.
Palm Beach Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath, who was chief when Santino rose to the bench, spoke out in support of the jurist, while Palm Beach County Court Judge Ted Booras testified that she was an “excellent” judge with a “strong work ethic.”
Santino and her lawyer Jeremy Kroll of Bogenschutz Dutko & Kroll in Fort Lauderdale declined to comment on the case.
Read the full court opinion: