The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday approved an agreement between Miami-Dade County Court Judge Deborah White-Labora and the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, which recommended a public reprimand after finding the noted jurist guilty of breaking two judicial ethics rules.
White-Labora’s public reprimand is set for 9 a.m. Feb. 6.
The JQC, which investigates claims of judicial misconduct, accused White-Labora of violating Canons 1 and 2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct by writing a character reference in support of a criminal defendant before his sentencing.
White-Labora is a pioneering drug-court jurist, who helped lead efforts to aid vulnerable defendants in the court system. The Miami-Dade Circuit had the nation’s first drug court, and the judge served in its adult felony division from 2008 to 2012.
“In my opinion, he is someone who can and will learn from his mistakes,” White-Labora wrote about the defendant, Sam Konell, in her January letter to U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez in Miami.
The letter praised 70-year-old Konell, accused of Medicare fraud, for his prior willingness to help the court with mentally ill defendants.
Investigators viewed this as an improper intervention, finding that White-Labora didn’t mean to act unethically but should have sought guidance before writing the letter. The JQC also noted that White-Labora didn’t have selfish motives.
The unanimous Florida Supreme Court decision also recognized that the judge’s conduct was well-intentioned, but pointed out that her actions could have undermined public confidence in the court.
“Judge White-Labora created the appearance of impropriety and partiality by improperly lending the prestige of her office to advance the private interests of the defendant for whom she improperly acted as a character witness,” the per curiam opinion said.
White Labora, who has been a Miami-Dade County Court judge since 1996, admitted and apologized for her improper conduct, according to court documents.
Read the full court opinion: