Miami-Dade judge: To run again, Spence-Jones must prove bias by first judge in Dunn lawsuit

Before she can qualify to run for a third term, Miami city Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones will have to prove that a Miami-Dade circuit judge was biased when he ruled she was ineligible two weeks ago.

In an unusual move that could fill the witness stand with judges and prosecutors, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marc Schumacher said Wednesday that he’ll hear testimony to determine if fellow Judge Jorge E. Cueto failed to be impartial when he ruled that Spence-Jones could not seek a third term.

“It’s an extraordinary proceeding,’’ said Spence-Jones’ attorney, Bruce Rogow.

Schumacher inherited the case last week after Cueto stepped down. Cueto made the move after questions were raised about his participation in an investigation of Spence-Jones when he was a Miami-Dade prosecutor in 2007. But Cueto did not vacate his ruling prohibiting the commissioner from running again, and Schumacher said the decision stands.

For now, at least, that means Spence-Jones cannot run for office again in November — but her political rival the Rev. Richard P. Dunn II can.

Cueto’s prior actions as a prosecutor came to light during litigation between Dunn and Spence-Jones. Dunn filed a lawsuit in April contending that a decision by the city attorney ruling that Spence-Jones could run for a third term was flawed.

City Attorney Julie Bru opined that the city charter allows commissioners to be in office for two full terms, and that Spence-Jones was denied those “full” terms because she spent 21 months suspended from office fighting a pair of state felony charges. The commissioner beat one of them in court and the other was dropped. She returned to office in September 2011, replacing Dunn, who had been appointed to fill her seat.

Two weeks ago Cueto ruled Bru was incorrect in her decision. He held that Spence-Jones had qualified to run and was elected twice, which under the city charter meant she cannot run again. He also referred to a 1999 public referendum in which 73 percent of voters imposed a two-term limit on Miami’s elected leaders.

Spence-Jones’ lawyers then filed a motion asking Cueto to step down because he had a conflict of interest. Their argument: As a state prosecutor he took sworn statements from a slew of people during the investigation into Spence-Jones over a large Coconut Grove development deal.

In stepping aside, the judge said he had no recollection of the matter or his involvement, and that he had contacted Joseph Centorino — his boss at the time in the state attorney’s office — who also had no recollection. The case eventually fizzled and Spence-Jones was never charged with any wrong-doing.

Records show Cueto was involved in taking sworn statements from several people involved in the Coconut Grove land deal a year before he was elected to the bench in 2008. Among those he questioned were former City Manager Joe Arriola, and Commissioners Marc Sarnoff and Tomás Regalado.

Judge Schumacher’s decision was not the outcome either side had hoped for on Wednesday.

Dunn’s attorney, J.C. Planas, told the judge the case should proceed directly to the appeals court, where both sides say it will end up no matter the outcome of a Cueto bias hearing.

Rogow, who had asked for a “fresh” new hearing on the merits of the case, told the judge a bias hearing could feature a long list of witnesses, potentially including himself, Planas and Centorino, now executive director of Miami-Dade’s Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

Rogow called it “unfortunate” that the allegation of Judge Cueto’s bias was even brought up again.