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Dana Marie Santino. Courtesy photo. Dana Marie Santino. Courtesy photo.

Palm Beach Circuit Judge Dana Santino should be removed from the bench for political attacks on her opponent in last year’s elections, a Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission panel recommended.

The panel found Santino violated the canon of judicial conduct forbidding inappropriate political activity by defending Facebook posts and other campaign materials smearing opponent Gregg Lerman for representing criminal defendants.

“We do not make this recommendation of removal lightly or without due consideration of its severity,” the panel wrote in a report filed Thursday in the Florida Supreme Court. “We are mindful of — and heavy-hearted about — the testimony of Judge Santino’s witnesses that she is beloved by many and a judge with a strong work ethic. However, were we to countenance her studied and continued refusal to abide by Canon 7, we would ourselves be undermining the rules governing judicial elections.”

Lerman, a West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney, filed a complaint with the JQC about Santino’s tactics, which included a Facebook page called “The Truth About Gregg Lerman.”

The page was created by paid consultants and included a post stating Lerman has “made a lot of money trying to free Palm Beach County’s worst criminals.” The post depicted Lerman’s face surrounded by the words “child pornography,” “drug trafficking,” “murder,” “identity theft,” “rape, “sexual assault,” “internet solicitation of minors” and “pedophiles.”

The JQC filed ethics charges against Santino in February, just a month after she took the bench. The panels’ recommendations said it wasn’t just the campaign materials themselves that caused concern — it was Santino’s comments to news media defending them.

“Mr. Lerman is not a public defender, and chooses to represent individuals who commit heinous crimes,” Santino told the Palm Beach Post last year.

Santino went on to win the November runoff election with 51.5 percent of the vote compared with Lerman’s 48.5 percent.

The JQC panel, chaired by Sumter Circuit Judge Michelle Morley, found Santino’s conduct was repeated and intentional. She acknowledged she violated the judicial canons when the Palm Beach County Bar Association’s judicial campaign commission made a unanimous pre-election ruling that she had.

But the JQC panel found she “chose to take no curative action for fear it would cost her the election.”

“It strains credulity to believe that Judge Santino never looked at the Facebook web page she knew was going to be created, when it was available to the public, after she received phone calls from prominent lawyers telling her it was not being ‘well received,’ or even, as she said, before telling her campaign consultant to take it down,” the panel wrote. “Nor does this panel accept Judge Santino’s explanation that she was too busy or sleep-deprived to manage, let alone pay attention to her campaign.”

The Supreme Court will make a final determination on Santino’s disciplinary case.

Along with Morley, the commission panel included Duval County Court Judge James Ruth, GrayRobinson president Mayanne Downs of Orlando, Michael Nachwalter of Kenny Nachwalter in Miami and nonlawyers Ricardo Morales III and Alvin Alsobrook.

Contact Celia Ampel at campel@alm.com. On Twitter: @CeliaAmpel

Celia Ampel

Celia Ampel covers South Florida litigation. Contact her at campel@alm.com or on Twitter at @CeliaAmpel.

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