Judge reassigned after panel finds he made sexist, racist comments

Judge Mark Hulsey must respond to commission's accusations within 20 days

By Jim Piggott - Reporter, Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A circuit court judge in Duval County was reassigned Wednesday after a commission found that he made sexist and racist comments to his staff.

Circuit Judge Mark Hulsey will now work in the probate division overseeing wills. Another judge will take over cases previously assigned to Hulsey.

Hulsey, who was accused of using epithets to refer to a female staff attorney and saying that blacks should "go back to Africa," could face sanctions after an investigation by a panel that polices judicial conduct.

A panel of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission found probable cause to pursue charges against Circuit Judge Mark Hulsey III for being "discourteous and condescending to staff," for having "expressed unnecessary criticism" of staff attorneys and for using "language inappropriate for your judicial office."

The notice of formal charges was filed Tuesday with the Florida Supreme Court, which has the ultimate authority over judges. Hulsey, who faces a re-election challenge this year, quickly denied the allegations. The commission has until October to file a recommendation for sanctions.

In the notice of charges, an investigative panel of the commission accused Hulsey of referring to a female staff lawyer as a "bitch" and a "c---," after she complained to the chief judge that Hulsey was overusing staff attorneys. The panel also accused the judge of demeaning female staff lawyers by likening them to "cheerleaders who talk during the national anthem."

Hulsey in 2011 "offhandedly observed" to an aide that African Americans "should go get back on a ship and go back to Africa," according to the notice of charges.

DOCUMENT: JQC notice of formal charges

In a statement issued by his campaign, Hulsey disputed the accusations.

"These false allegations have been a poorly kept secret hanging over me like a cloud for months," Hulsey said in the release. "I am pleased the JQC has concluded its initial investigation, and that I will now have an opportunity to respond to them in a public forum."

Hulsey, a military veteran who has been practicing law for three decades, also said he has "demonstrated his commitment to the principles of equal justice for all" since joining the bench in 2011. Hulsey faces challenger Gerald Wilkerson in this year's campaign.

Mark Mahon, the chief judge for the 4th Judicial Circuit, which includes Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, called the allegations "troubling" and transferred Hulsey from the criminal section to the probate section after the notice of charges was filed.

"These allegations are very serious, and if true, very troubling," Mahon said in a statement.

The reassignment was not intended "to pass judgment on the truth of these charges but to continue the orderly administration of justice," Mahon said.

A group of black pastors who made the allegations against Hulsey public last month are calling for him to resign immediately or be removed.

"We can't have this. He has to step down. There is no option. We're calling on the chief judge to immediately remove him from the bench," Pastor Frederick Newbill said. "This is not going away. Even if we have to go to the courthouse, we will protest this."

Lawyers hold news conference to support judge

But 10 black attorneys who said they have tried cases before the judge held a news conference Wednesday to support Hulsey. They said he never appeared to be racist and was never demeaning in court. The lawyers suggest the allegations were politically motivated.

"I have never seen anything consistent with that type of statement," said attorney A. Wellington Barlow. "As a matter fact, it's been the very opposite. He has a good reputation in the courthouse amongst everybody I can think of. White lawyers, black lawyers, men and women. He has a reputation for being fair to every litigant that comes before him."

If the charges against Husley are confirmed by the Supreme Court, legal experts said it could impact cases the judge has handled. 

The Public Defender's Office issued a statement saying it was already looking into those cases.

“While these are only allegations at this point, we are currently reviewing all client cases in that particular court division for any and all potential related issues in order to ensure our clients have received the best possible representation," the statement read.

In addition to the allegations regarding comments about staff lawyers and African-Americans, the investigative panel also accused Hulsey of exploiting his judicial assistant by requiring her to write personal checks and make personal phone calls on his behalf, and of failing to "respond to post-conviction matters promptly and efficiently," causing the Attorney General's Office to "unnecessarily seek extensions."

After the judicial panel opened the investigation, the judge told his assistant to "tell the truth" but also instructed her to say that she did not believe Hulsey would make derogatory remarks about women or blacks, according to the notice of charges.

"Your conduct represents an interference with the JQC's inquiry process," Alexander John Williams, assistant general counsel for the commission, wrote to Hulsey in the notice.

The panel also accused Hulsey of "indifference to your judicial duties" by relying on staff attorneys to "unnecessarily prepare word-for-word 'scripts' of even routine and mundane judicial acts."

Attorney Curtis Fallgater said the allegations do not fit the man he's known for more than 20 years. 

"I've known him for 20 years ... He doesn't have a racist bone in his body," Fallgater said. "So that's just not an accurate statement or a characterization of him. And the proof is how he handles his cases -- whites, blacks, whoever appears in front of him, they're going to get a fair determination because he's a very fair-minded judge."

Hulsey is the fourth Florida judge to undergo a formal investigation this year. Starting two years ago, the state Supreme Court began taking a much harsher view of judges' inappropriate behavior. The Supreme Court has increasingly rejected recommendations from the Judicial Qualifications Commission and called for more punitive measures instead.

Of the 78 cases involving judges over the past 16 years, when the Supreme Court first began posting the documents online, seven judges have been removed from office, while 14 resigned before their punishments were meted out and just one successfully defended himself against the charges.

In 1992, 4th Circuit Chief Judge John Santora was removed from office by the Florida Supreme Court one year after he blamed school violence on integration and expressed opposition to interracial marriage. Protesters, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, picketed outside the courthouse.

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