By: Judge Keathan Frink
Judge Keathan Frink is a judge in the 17th Judicial Circuit Court in the State of Florida in the United States. All opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author as an external expert and do not necessarily reflect the official position of UNODC.
Florida's official nickname is "The Sunshine State" because of its warm weather throughout the year, but to those who work with Florida's government, it is considered "The Sunshine State" because of the public's access to Florida's branches of government. Any citizen can simply make a public records request to obtain information about almost any activity of Florida's government. This access to information includes Florida's judiciary and certain disciplinary actions. In fact, cases of judicial misconduct where probable cause has been found and formal charges filed are published on the website of the Supreme Court of Florida.
Created in 1966 by amendment of the Florida Constitution, the Judicial Qualifications Commission ("JQC") is an independent state agency tasked with investigating allegations of misconduct and disability by all judges within the state of Florida. The JQC does not advise on whether certain conduct violates Florida's Code of Judicial Conduct as that is the job of the Judicial Ethics Advisory Commission. Small but powerful, the agency known as the JQC is staffed by only four employees. The Commission members, however, are a collection of six judges, five laypersons selected by Florida's Governor, and four members of The Florida Bar Association. The Chair of the Commission selects nine members to serve on the Investigative Panel and six members to serve on the Hearing Panel.
The JQC acts based on complaints received by individuals claiming a judge has acted unethically. The complaint and investigation process is as follows :
Judges found in violation of the Judicial Canons are subject to a range of sanctions from private admonishment, to public reprimand, fines, suspension, and even removal from the bench. The time it takes to complete an investigation can vary. The Investigative Panel meets approximately every six weeks and a determination to proceed with an inquiry into alleged misconduct could last several weeks to months. If the Investigative Panel decides to proceed to a formal hearing, the process can take a year or more before a final decision is rendered. During that time, the judge may or may not be permitted to continue serving on the bench depending on the nature and severity of the allegations of misconduct. It is important to note that judges are governed by a separate Code of Judicial Conduct designed to protect and maintain the public's perception and trust of the judiciary and judicial branch.
The work of the JQC is critical in order to maintain the public's trust and confidence in the integrity of Florida's courts. The courts are the only place where members of the community can seek legal redress to disputes and justice when harmed by criminal acts. It is fundamental to every government that the public believes the judiciary will treat them fairly and that decisions are based on the law rather than an outside factor influencing a judge. Florida's Judicial Qualifications Commission provides the public with a formal process to make known concerns regarding potential ethical violations and misconduct. Publicizing disciplinary actions for judicial misconduct not only provides transparency into the misdeeds of Florida's judges, it also serves as a deterrent for other judges to avoid engaging in similar activities that could lead to sanctions including removal.