Thursday, November 2, 2017

Feuding Judge Gets Short Florida Suspension

A public reprimand and a 30-day suspension without pay has been imposed by the Florida Supreme Court on a county court judge

Judge Yacucci’s violations occurred during the course of an adversarial and contentious professional relationship between Judge Yacucci and attorney Stephen Smith. Id. at 1. Judge Yacucci has served as a county court judge in St. Lucie County since 2002. Id. at 3. Smith, who joined his current employer “The Ticket Clinic” in 2009, handled all of the Ticket Clinic’s cases in St. Lucie County. Id. at 4. Judge Yacucci held Smith in contempt in 2009 for accidentally showing up late to a hearing, and again in 2014 where he jailed Smith for five days for “hotly disputed” reasons. Id. During the 2014 contempt finding, Judge Yacucci announced in the courtroom that he had “lost confidence” in Smith, and subsequently filed a Florida Bar complaint which was later resolved with no imposition of discipline. Id. at 4-5.

Thereafter, in 2014, Smith ran against Judge Yacucci for a county court seat in a highly combative election. Id. at 5. Judge Yacucci sued Smith and an electioneering communication organization (“ECO”) for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Id. Judge Yacucci obtained a temporary injunction against the ECO, but the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Concerned Citizens for Judicial Fairness, Inc. v. Yacucci, 162 So. 3d 68, 72-73 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014), overturned it for lacking supporting evidence and for triggering First Amendment concerns. Id. at 5-6.

Before election day, a public altercation between Smith and Judge Yacucci occurred at a polling place. Id. at 6. Judge Yacucci asserted that Smith made a sexual innuendo about Judge Yacucci’s wife, and that he responded with heated and profane words. Id. Smith asserted that the judge verbally attacked and physically assaulted him, and so he subsequently sued Judge Yacucci for assault, battery, and defamation. Id. During a televised interview in his courtroom immediately following the incident, Judge Yacucci remarked that Smith “should not be a lawyer,” “should not be in a courtroom,” and that he is “truly a disgrace as a judicial candidate and really as a human being.” Id.

Judge Yacucci won and stated he would recuse himself from Smith's cases for 2 1/2 years but failed to honor that limitation.

The court

Judge Yacucci’s conduct warrants a sanction harsher than a mere public reprimand, as his longstanding combative relationship with Smith created legitimate fears of partiality and bias on the part of several litigants before his court. The acrimonious relationship between Judge Yacucci and Smith, marked by lawsuits, a public altercation and televised disparagement, the jailing of Smith for contempt, judicial campaign disputes, unsolicited attempts to influence a petition for writ of prohibition, and multiple refusals to disqualify himself, clearly displayed Judge Yacucci’s disregard for proper judicial conduct. Further, the responses filed by Judge Yacucci disputed the charges against him and attempted to taint the court’s view of Smith. The judge’s pattern of behavior towards Smith and his refusal to disqualify himself on several cases despite the legal sufficiency of Smith’s motions constitute clear and egregious violations of the Canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Judge Pariente concurred and dissented 

I dissent in part because I conclude that a longer suspension of at least ninety days is warranted in light of the totality of Judge Yacucci’s conduct, which occurred over a period of years and was unbefitting of a judicial officer both in the courtroom and on the campaign trail. I recognize that Judge Yacucci, first elected as a county court judge in 2002, has in many respects had an unblemished legal and judicial career, but we cannot and do not condone Judge Yacucci’s misconduct as found by the Judicial Qualifications Commission (“JQC”) and approved by this Court...

Judge Yacucci’s cumulative misconduct in this case diminished the public’s perception of the judiciary and, by engaging in this conduct, Judge Yacucci failed to uphold the integrity and independence of the judicial office. If the JQC’s unrefuted findings of misconduct did not cause Judge Yacucci to reflect upon the totality of his actions, I am skeptical that this Court requiring Judge Yacucci to take a judicial ethics course will have its desired effect. See majority op. at 1. For all of these reasons, I would conclude that the conduct in this case warrants, at minimum, a ninety-day suspension.

(Mike Frisch)

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