Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino is under investigation for possible ethics violations after her campaign last fall accused an election opponent of "representing murderers, rapists, child molesters and other criminal defendants."
The Judicial Qualifications Commission, a panel that oversees judges, filed a formal notice of charges Monday against Santino in the Florida Supreme Court, saying her behavior demonstrated "a clear and present unfitness for office."
An investigative panel last month decided that "probable cause exists for formal proceedings to be instituted against" the judge, elected in November.
Santino's campaign targeted opponent Gregg Lerman for representing defendants in a variety of high-profile crimes, characterizing Lerman in a Facebook post as a lawyer "who's made a lot of money" defending murderers instead of representing victims.
According to documents filed with Supreme Court, Santino defended her campaign's tactics in an interview with The Palm Beach Post.
"Significantly, your statement that Mr. Lerman is not a public defender but chooses to represent individuals who commit heinous crimes, undeservedly impugns the integrity of the entire judicial system by demeaning the work of private attorneys who represent accused persons," Judicial Qualifications Commission Assistant General Counsel Alexander John Williams wrote in the eight-page notice filed Monday.
In addition to the "wholly inappropriate connotation and tenor" of the statements on the Facebook page posted by one of Santino's campaign consultants --- which is no longer available online --- about Lerman's representation of the high-profile defendants, the substance was "also false" because Lerman was court-appointed to represent three of the accused, Williams wrote.
While Lerman "appeared remorseful and apologetic" during an appearance before the judicial investigative panel, "it is difficult to escape the conclusion that you and your campaign consultants employed a 'win-at-all-costs,' and pay the fine later strategy," Williams wrote.
The judge has 20 days to respond to the charges.