Supreme Court Removes Leon County Judge For Running Religious Business Out of Her Chambers
FlaglerLive | October 30, 2014
The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday removed from office a longtime Leon County judge who was accused of operating a private business from her chambers and deleting financial records while under investigation.
Justices said the conduct of County Judge Judith Hawkins, who has served on the bench since 1996, warranted the “most severe sanction.”
“We must gauge Judge Hawkins’ present fitness to hold office in light of the cumulative nature and seriousness of the violations proven in this case,” a 36-page Supreme Court opinion said. “When we do so, we conclude that Judge Hawkins’ conduct is fundamentally inconsistent with the responsibilities of judicial office, demonstrating present unfitness to hold office, and that removal is the only appropriate sanction in this case.”
A large part of the case focused on Hawkins’ operation of a private business, Gaza Road Ministries, which included the judge writing and publishing a book based on biblical stories. Among other things, the Supreme Court found that she used a judicial assistant for Gaza Road Ministries work, appeared in judicial robes in photos on the company website and sold books to attorneys who appeared before her.
In one instance, Hawkins sold a book to an attorney appearing before her in open court and accepted $15 for it, according to findings of a panel of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission.
“Another attorney testified that he had a conversation with Judge Hawkins in the courthouse hallway in which she mentioned that she had a book for sale, which the attorney purchased although he was not really interested in the subject,” the Supreme Court opinion said. “He testified he did not want to offend the judge.”
The Supreme Court also pointed to Hawkins’ “extreme lack of candor” during the investigative proceedings. In part, it pointed to Hawkins deleting Gaza Road Ministries financial information from a computer early in the morning of the day she was supposed to be deposed about the issues.
In a document filed with the Supreme Court in July, Hawkins acknowledged “errors” but argued she should not be removed from office.
“There is an enormous difference between errors of the mind and errors of the heart; this case is about errors of the mind, not of the heart,” she said in the document. “The allegations did not include any intentional injustice toward litigants; there were no allegations of bribery, stealing, or misappropriation of funds; nor were there allegations of inappropriate use of office or power for personal advantage.”
A panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission recommended that Hawkins face a reprimand, a three-month suspension without pay and a $17,000 fine. That was based, at least in part, on Hawkins having charitable motives in running the business and her lengthy judicial career, Thursday’s opinion said.
But the Supreme Court chose to impose the more-severe penalty of removal from office. Six justices agreed with the decision, while the seventh, Justice Peggy Quince, was recused from the case.
“It is our hope that this decision will serve as a reminder to judges of their continuing obligation to personally observe the high standards of conduct mandated by the Code of Judicial Conduct, and to conduct themselves in all things in a manner that will demonstrate candor and preserve the integrity and independence of the judiciary,” the opinion said.
–Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida