Editorials

Judges judged

TNS

Two courts this week affirmed the indispensable notion that for judges, and anyone who wants to be a judge, the rules are different.

Miami-Dade Judge Jacqueline Schwartz cursed out a store owner last year. This week, the Florida Supreme Court came down hard on her, recommending that she be suspended without pay for 30 days and fined $10,000.

It is a most appropriate penalty for this most inappropriate behavior, even though it was not carried out while Ms. Schwartz was on the bench. Her profanity and her hostile demeanor were unbecoming of someone entrusted to be a fair and impartial interpreter of the law. And though she did not break the law, she did breach the rules of judicial conduct by which she agreed to abide when she assumed the bench in 2003.

Yes, judges are human, but from them especially, more is expected. That’s why there is a process in which to mete out formal reprimands when one crosses the line. Any other elected official — a mayor, a council member — might have looked bad and, possibly, paid at the polls, but that would be the extent of the penalty.

Ms. Schwartz’s convenience-store meltdown came last June in Coconut Grove. She complained to the store owner, Firas Hussain, that he had an oversized sign for one of her opponents in the window and demanded that he either remove it or put up one of her signs. When Mr. Hussain refused, she dropped the F-bomb and stalked out. So much for judicial temperament.

She has since apologized to Mr. Hussain and said she was sorry for another violation of interfering with official court records. Though Ms. Schwartz could have simply received a slap on the wrist, the state Supreme Court took a harsher stance, which her attorney says she will accept. Probably a wise decision.

When Ms. Schwartz went ballistic, she was in the heat of a reelection campaign — which she eventually won. This Editorial Board, for years now, has posited that electing judges remains a flawed way to place them on the bench. They are not politicians, but must act like them — for good and for ill — and with constraints that don’t hamstring other candidates. Again, the rules are different, for good reason.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can ban judicial candidates from personally asking supporters for campaign contributions. The vote was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. siding with the more-liberal faction. The case comes out of Florida (of course), one of 39 states with direct-solicitation bans. Hillsborough candidate Lanell Williams-Yulee, running for a county judicial seat, signed a fund-raising letter soliciting campaign contributions.

That’s prohibited by Florida law, and Ms. Williams-Yulee was fined and reprimanded. The state Supreme Court upheld both the penalty and the state’s ban on solicitation, and on Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court came down on the side of judicial integrity, too. Judges should not be, or be made to appear, beholden to contributors’ agendas or legal fates in their role of impartial arbiters of the law.

The wall between candidate and contributor is not opaque. Judicial candidates can still make campaign appearances where proxies ask for money; they know who has made a contribution and can thank the check writer.

But Chief Justice John Roberts got it right when he wrote: “Solicitation by the candidate personally creates a categorically different — and more severe — risk.”

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