By Jan Pudlow
Amid confusion of a new Seminole County Courthouse, 11 citizens were directed to sit in the wrong courtroom to respond to traffic citations. Next door in an adjoining courtroom, an angry Judge John Sloop signed warrants for their arrest for failing to show. The citizens were handcuffed and chained by 15 officers who took them to jail, where they were strip-searched and sat locked up nine hours until 9 that Friday night.
On the following Monday, when Chief Judge James Perry asked why he didn’t solve the problem when two judges and a bailiff first alerted him to the mistake early Friday afternoon, Judge Sloop responded that he did not understand why it was a “big deal.”
“The arrest of 11 citizens and their continued confinement for nine hours is a very big deal,” the justices wrote in a per curium opinion December 7 in Case No. SC05-555 in Inquiry Concerning Judge John R. Sloop.
It was such a big deal that the court has removed 58-year-old Judge Sloop from office for “conduct unbecoming a member of the judiciary demonstrating a present unfitness to hold office.
“Judge Sloop’s indifference to the anxiety, humiliation, and hardship imposed upon these 11 citizens reflects a callous disregard for others that is among the most egregious examples we have seen of abuse of judicial authority and lack of proper judicial temperament,” the justices said in a 26-page order.
During oral arguments, Sloop had asked that he be allowed to remain on the bench until 2011, when he could finish his term, complete 20 years as a judge, and receive his retirement benefits. He promised he would not seek service as a senior judge. He said he is receiving treatment for anger management and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which he maintains contributed to his poor judgment. Sloop also argued that he has not had any angry outbursts since serving in the civil division.
But the justices said the court is more concerned about what’s best for the public, not what’s best for the judge.
“A determination that Judge Sloop is fit to remain in office for four years but unfit after that point would convey greater concern for the welfare of the judge than the welfare of the public. In striving to ensure a fair and impartial judiciary, we owe our allegiance to the people of Florida, not to individual judges.
“If Judge Sloop is fit to remain in office now, his misconduct to date would not render him unfit four years from now. Conversely, if that misconduct warrants mandatory early retirement in four years, it demonstrates unfitness to hold judicial office now.”
Efforts to address his hot temper and ADHD with counseling and medication “are too little, too late,” the court concluded.
While the December 3, 2004, episode involving the wrongly arrested and jailed citizens was the most disturbing, it was one of three separate incidents of violating the Code of Judicial Conduct in the current case, and marks the fourth time Judge Sloop has faced allegations of judicial misconduct in his 15 years on the bench.
In his first year as a judge in 1991, he was investigated by the Judicial Qualifications Commission for alleged misconduct in an eviction proceeding and for displaying a firearm in court, which ended in no findings of probable cause and a private admonishment.
In 2002, the JQC investigated Sloop for rude and abusive behavior. Again, there was no finding of probable cause, but the JQC warned him about his temper, as did other judges.
In the current case, Sloop admitted to two other counts:
• In the case of State v. Ramos, Sloop declined to release a defendant pursuant to the clear mandate of Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.134, thereby requiring the defendant’s release pursuant to a writ of habeas corpus.
• In the case of State v. Mercano, Sloop was “rude, abrupt, and abusive” in his treatment of the defendant, “acting more like a prosecutor than a county court judge.”
“Regrettably, the previous JQC admonishments, feedback from the bench and bar, and other current charges serve merely as a backdrop for the misconduct alleged in count one in this case,” the court wrote.
Judge Sloop admitted the allegation about wrongly arresting the 11 citizens and failing to do anything about his mistake for hours. The JQC Investigative Panel sought his removal from the bench. Because Sloop contested that recommendation, a full hearing was held before the JQC Hearing Panel, which found that the three instances of misconduct violated Canons 1, 2A, and 3B(2), (4), and (8) of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
But the hearing panel was willing to give Sloop another chance, finding that he does have an ADHD disorder and that his treatment has been beneficial.
Among the panel’s recommended sanctions were a public reprimand, suspension from the bench for 90 days without pay, continued treatment and medication, the directive to issue letters of apology to the 11 people wrongly arrested as well as publish a full-page newspaper apology, and an agreement he would retire from the bench at the end of his current term in January 2011.
The justices rejected those recommendations, saying they are “unconvinced that Judge Sloop can both effectively manage his temper and remain an effective jurist.”
Quoting Canon 1 of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, the justices concluded: “We hope that our decision today will remind all judges of their solemn obligation to ‘personally observe’ high standards of conduct ‘so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved.’
“Serving as a judge is a privilege and not a right. Finally, we take this opportunity to apologize on behalf of the justice system to the citizens of the state, to the citizens of Seminole County, and in particular to the 11 citizens harmed by Judge Sloop’s misconduct in failing to promptly ensure their release.”