Hello everyone and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent Florida Supreme Court opinion disbarring a lawyer and former judge for extensive texting with a prosecutor at the same time that she was the presiding judge in the prosecutor’s first degree murder trial. The opinion is The Florida Bar v. Ana I. Gardiner, No. SC11-2311 (June 5, 2014) and the Supreme Court’s opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2014/sc11-2311.pdf#search=gardiner
According to the opinion, the former judge/lawyer was the presiding judge in State v. Loureiro, No. 04-15633CF10A (Fla. 17th Cir. Ct.), a capital first-degree murder case and former prosecutor Howard Scheinberg was the lead prosecutor in the case.
On March 27, 2007, the jury returned a verdict finding Loureiro guilty of first-degree murder and the former judge/lawyer presided over the penalty phase on April 30 and May 1, 2007, which resulted in a jury recommendation of the death penalty. On August 24, 2007, the former judge/lawyer entered an order sentencing Loureiro to death.
The referee’s report found that on March 23, 2007, several days before the jury returned its guilty verdict, the former judge/lawyer was having dinner at a restaurant when she accidentally encountered the prosecutor. After dinner, the former judge/lawyer, the prosecutor and some others decided to go to a bar and the prosecutor drove to the bar with a law student.
During the drive, the law student raised the appearance of impropriety that might exist if the presiding judge and the lead prosecutor in a pending murder trial socialized while the case was ongoing. The prosecutor was upset by this and left the bar shortly after arriving. The referee found that the former judge/lawyer tried to find out what had upset the prosecutor and spoke with him on the telephone several times during the following weekend.
The trial continued on Monday, March 26, 2007 and the former judge/lawyer did not disclose her interaction with the prosecutor on the record. On March 27, 2007, after the jury returned a guilty verdict, the former judge/lawyer and the prosecutor had a lengthy telephone conversation, wherein the prosecutor told the former judge/lawyer about his discussion with the law student on the way to the bar; however, according to the referee’s report, the former judge/lawyer assured the prosecutor that there was nothing to worry about and that she made a “conscious decision” not to disclose her social interaction and telephone calls.
The referee that the former judge/lawyer and the prosecutor began a “significant personal and emotional relationship” and, between March 23 and August 24, 2007, the day that the former judge/lawyer imposed a sentence of death, she and the prosecutor exchanged 949 cell phone calls and 471 text messages. On the day before, the day of, and the day following the imposition of the death sentence, the former judge/lawyer and the prosecutor communicated by telephone and text 44 times and the former judge/lawyer “deliberately and knowingly chose not to disclose this emotional relationship to the defense, despite her clear duty to do so.”
Loureiro’s attorneys filed a direct appeal to the Florida Supreme Court and soon after, media began reporting allegations that the former judge/lawyer and the prosecutor had met socially at a restaurant and a bar during the murder trial. The Court sent the matter back to the circuit court to consider the communications between the former judge/lawyer and the prosecutor, and determine whether a new trial should be ordered. The Broward County State Attorney’s office hired a special prosecutor to conduct the investigation and, on April 30, 2009, the former judge/lawyer appeared for a deposition. During her deposition testimony, she acknowledged for the first time her ongoing emotional relationship with the prosecutor. The State Attorney’s office eventually agreed to a new trial in the case. At the second trial, Loureiro was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
In November 2008, the Judicial Qualifications Commission appointed a panel to investigate and determine whether the former judge/lawyer engaged in misconduct. The former judge/lawyer appeared before the panel in late November 2008 and, according to the referee, she “failed to disclose the honest and true nature of her relationship with the prosecutor.” In April 2010, the former judge/lawyer resigned as a circuit judge.
The referee found that the former judge/lawyer’s testimony would “leave any reasonable person with the misimpression that her relationship with (the prosecutor) was merely professional. She did not disclose their emotional relationship or the significant number of personal phone and text communications they exchanged during the penalty phase of the Loureiro trial. She also did not disclose that her relationship with (the prosecutor) continued after the trial and intensified. During the period from March 2008 through August 2008, former judge/lawyer and the prosecutor exchanged more than 3000 phone and text communications. The referee further found that former judge/lawyer’s testimony during the JQC proceedings was a ‘deliberate act of dishonesty and deceitfulness.’”
The referee recommended that former judge/lawyer be found guilty of violating three Florida Bar Rules, 3-4.3 (the commission by a lawyer of any act that is unlawful or contrary to honesty and justice may constitute a cause for discipline) and 4-8.4(c) (a lawyer shall not engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation) and 4-8.4(d) (a lawyer shall not engage in conduct in connection with the practice of law that is prejudicial to the administration of justice).
After considering aggravating and mitigating circumstances, the referee recommended that the former judge/lawyer be suspended from the practice of law for one (1) year and pay the Bar’s costs. The Bar filed a Petition for Review and requested that the former judge/lawyer be disbarred. The Supreme Court opinion discussed the former judge/lawyer’s “dishonest conduct” and the harm it caused at length and “(c)onsidering (the former judge/lawyer’s) dishonest conduct and the harm that her actions have caused to the administration of justice in a capital first-degree murder case, we conclude that disbarment is the appropriate sanction.”
Bottom line: As many of you may already know, this was an extremely high profile, media intensive case involving allegations of very serious (and somewhat inexplicable) conduct/misconduct by the presiding judge and prosecutor in a first degree murder trial in south Florida. It is also another disciplinary case wherein the Florida Supreme Court significantly increased a referee’s recommendation discipline, this time from a one (1) year suspension to disbarment.
Let’s be careful out there.
Disclaimer: this Ethics Alert blog is not an advertisement and does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.
Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431
Clearwater, Florida 33759
Office (727) 799-1688
Fax (727) 799-1670