Supreme Court removes Northeast Florida circuit judge from bench
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The state Supreme Court on Monday removed a Northeast Florida circuit judge because of improper conduct during a 2016 election campaign and other actions while on the bench.
In the unanimous decision, the court ordered the removal at 5 p.m. Monday of Judge Scott DuPont, who heard cases in Putnam and Flagler counties in the 7th Judicial Circuit.
The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates wrongdoing by judges, recommended that DuPont be taken off the bench after a hearing panel found numerous violations of judicial canons, including an allegation that DuPont published false allegations online about his 2016 election challenger, Malcolm Anthony, and Anthony’s family members.
The investigation also found that, during a candidate forum in 2016, DuPont said that he would not find a state law unconstitutional “because it’s not my job to legislate from the bench,” a “blatant violation” of judicial canons that ban judges from predetermining how they will decide on certain cases.
The panel also took issue with DuPont for changing the times of first-appearance hearings in criminal cases during Memorial Day weekend in 2016 to accommodate his campaign schedule. DuPont admitted he “made a poor decision” but “simply could not say why he started the hearing early,” according to court records.
The commission was especially concerned about information DuPont posted online about Anthony during DuPont’s re-election campaign two years ago.
DuPont “imputed criminality to his opponent’s wife and daughter on his website,” a report by the commission’s hearing panel said.
“He disseminated false and misleading information that Anthony employed aliases, posed as an imposter, and was ‘booked’ for arrest,” the report said.
DuPont was warned repeatedly “not to publish the woefully deficient ‘opposition research’ gathered, both verbally and in writing, by his campaign manager and judicial colleagues,” according to the report.
DuPont’s campaign website represented that Anthony’s daughter had been arrested 23 times, when in fact she had never been arrested, lawyers representing the Judicial Qualifications Commission wrote on April 11.
“This behavior is beyond reckless,” they wrote.
But, arguing that the judge should not be removed from office, DuPont’s lawyer, Rutledge Liles, wrote that the commission was attempting to “fan the flame of prejudice” to get the judge kicked off the bench.
“In essence, what we are faced with is an effort to pile on Judge DuPont in an attempt to show a pattern of conduct justifying his removal,” Liles wrote in a response filed April 30.
DuPont “admitted his carelessness and has in no fashion attempted to defend what occurred as acceptable conduct” regarding the alleged elections violations, Liles wrote.
The judge maintained he “acted in good faith” with “the honest belief” that the information given to him about his opponent was accurate, according to the court documents.
“In this context, it defies common sense to think that an incumbent judge would intentionally manufacture false allegations against an opponent,” Liles wrote. “Careless or reckless publication amounts to negligence and conduct of a rash or unwise nature. It is distinguishable from an evil motive or intent.”
But the judge’s insistence that he didn’t know the information was faulty at the same time he claimed to accept responsibility for the ethical lapse didn’t jibe with the lawyers representing the Judicia Qualifications Commission.
“Acceptance of responsibility is not to repeatedly testify before the Hearing Panel that you relied on others and yet voice the magic words, ‘I accept responsibility,’ ” lawyers for the commission wrote, adding that DuPont’s testimony to the commission “was, at times, not worthy of belief.”
Monday’s order removing DuPont from the bench is the latest action from justices who have grown increasingly intolerant of ethical and behavioral lapses by judges.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission’s recommendation of removal relied in part on former Chief Judge Terence Perkins, who accused DuPont of heavy-handedness when dealing with defendants and told the commission he received more complaints about DuPont than any other judge.
Perkins said he never assigned DuPont to a felony division because he “was fearful he would constantly have to react to Judge DuPont ‘putting people in jail all the time,’ ” lawyers for the commission wrote in April.
But Liles took issue with the commission’s reliance on Perkins’ negative remarks about the judge, pointing out that Perkins also authored a letter praising DuPont’s character.
And Liles dismissed DuPont’s alleged “heavy handedness” by reminding the court that Putnam County is one of the poorest in Florida. Along with Putnam and Flagler, the circuit also includes St. Johns and Volusia counties.
Putnam County “had a lot of trouble with ‘crime, domestic violence, violence and truancy, and things of that nature,” according to another 7th Circuit judge, according to Liles’ April 30 response.
DuPont should be applauded for “his efforts to clean up Putnam County and restore some semblance of order,” his lawyer advised the court.
The county “has the highest child rape statistic per capita” in Florida, has “the highest teen pregnancy rate” and has the highest divorce rate, according to DuPont’s testimony.
“Against this backdrop, should ‘putting people in jail all the time’ and being ‘heavy handed’ in dealing with the domestic violence and crime be given even a moment’s notice as, is it unreasonable for a judge, who is presiding over a particular case, hearing the seriousness of the charges first hand, to exercise discretion and judgment?” Liles wrote.
Monday’s order removing DuPont from the bench will be followed by a full order later.
News Service of Florida