Broward County Court Judge Claudia Robinson, who named her former campaign manager the default mediator in 245 cases after she rose to the bench, admitted she violated rules governing judicial ethics.
She now faces a 30-day suspension without pay, based on the Judicial Qualifications Commission’s findings and recommendation of discipline.
Robinson acknowledged she contravened judicial canons by “creating the appearance of impropriety and favoritism” in her dealings with Wilton Manors attorney and political consultant Michael Ahearn. Court records show she helped Ahearn grow a lucrative business with hundreds of cases billed at $250 and $300 per hour.
The judge self-funded most of her 2014 campaign for judicial office and did not hire a campaign manager. But she relied on Ahearn, who “played a significant role” as a volunteer consultant, according to a stipulation filed Thursday.
But the Judicial Qualifications Commission’s ethics charges against her suggested she seemed to repay the favor once she won the judgeship, assigning a “disproportionate number of mediations” to her political ally.
“Upon taking office in 2015, Judge Robinson began appointing Mr. Ahearn to serve as a court-appointed mediator in small claims and civil county court cases,” according to the stipulation.
Of 296 cases the judge ordered into mediation, she assigned 245 to Ahearn as default mediator if the litigants did not choose an alternative within 10 days. Ahearn completed 174 of these cases, charging $250-$300 per hour with a one-hour minimum.
“By appointing Mr. Ahearn as the default mediator in over 80 percent of her mediation orders, Judge Robinson created the appearance that the appointments were, in effect, payback for Mr. Ahearn’s services to Judge Robinson’s campaign,” according to the stipulation.
Robinson denied the allegation but acknowledged her conduct created the appearance of favoritism. She insisted she had no deal with Ahearn to use her position on the bench to grow his business and said she instead based the appointments on the quality of the attorney’s work.
“Judge Robinson deeply regrets her error in judgment, and has expressed sincere remorse about the damage her conduct caused to the public’s perception of the independence of the judiciary,” the stipulation states.
Ahearn, for his part, testified under oath that he and the Robinson never agreed she’d direct cases his way in exchange for his pro-bono consulting work.
Robinson broadened the pool of mediators after a journalist broke the story, according to the stipulation.
The news story by Local 10 investigative reporter Bob Norman prompted an ethics complaint against Ahearn, who denied any wrongdoing.
“The Florida Bar investigated these allegations against me, and dismissed the bar complaint because they found no inappropriate relationship between me and the judge,” Ahearn said. “The parties to the litigation always had the option to use someone other than me. They weren’t forced to use me.”
The JQC acknowledged Robinson’s attempt at mitigation. Its Nov. 30 findings note, “Judge Robinson apologized, expressed remorse and cooperated with the JQC investigation at all stages, including admitting to violating the canons.” It recommended 30 days’ suspension without pay and a requirement that the judge reimburse the commission for its investigative costs.
The Florida Supreme Court, which has the last word on attorney discipline, has the discretion to accept or reject the terms of the stipulation.