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Court reprimands judges for an improper endorsement

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Florida-Supreme-Court-SealThe Supreme Court has reprimanded one former and four current 11th Circuit judges for improperly endorsing a company seeking a community care services contract from the Florida Department of Children and Families.

The court accepted a stipulation between the Judicial Qualifications Commission and the five judges where they agreed they had acted improperly and accepted as punishment the reprimand published in the court’s opinion.

Those reprimanded are retired Judge Cindy Lederman, Judge Marcia Caballero, Judge Rosa Figarola, Judge Teresa Pooler, and Judge Mavel Ruiz.

In March 2018, when DCF began the process to award a contract to be lead agency to deliver “community-based care” for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, the contract at the time was held by Our Kids of Miami-Dade and Monroe, Inc., and it, along with Citrus Health Network, submitted proposals.

Judge Lederman composed a letter that September on her judicial letterhead endorsing Our Kids for the contract and circulated it to other judges, then twice sent reminders urging other judges to sign. Eventually the four other judges signed and the letter was sent to DCF.

The letter said in part: “We have worked with Our Kids and we have complete faith only in the Our Kids model of leadership. When you select the agency please keep our voices in mind.”

The bidding process became controversial, and the letter was mentioned in a news story about that process. Eventually, DCF restarted the bidding procedure, although there was no evidence the letter played a role in the bidding process, and the contract was eventually awarded to Citrus Health Network.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission found the action violated Canons 1, 2, and 4 of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct, including that “[a] judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interest of the judge or others,” or take actions that could undermine a “judge’s independence, integrity, or impartiality” or “appear to a reasonable person to be coercive.”

“We agree with the JQC’s findings of fact and generally agree with the stipulated discipline. Each respondent fully cooperated with the JQC. Each respondent took responsibility for the misconduct and acknowledged that it should not have happened. The respondents’ letter was not intended to promote the financial interests of themselves or others. Moreover, each respondent has an otherwise unblemished disciplinary history.

“Thus, we agree with the stipulated discipline of reprimand by publication of this written opinion. We emphasize though, with respect to Judge Lederman’s distinct role in generating the letter and recruiting other judges to support it, this Court has consistently held that such misconduct warrants a public reprimand. However, in light of Judge Lederman’s retirement [she left the bench at the end of 2018], this Court approves the stipulated discipline of a written reprimand.”

The court acted March 26 in Inquiry Concerning a Judge No. 18-572 Re: Cindy Lederman, Marcia Caballero, Rosa Figarola, Teresa Pooler, Mavel Ruiz, Case No. SC19-1377.

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