Florida judges acknowledge that “justice requires the appearance of justice.” And given some of the controversial verdicts coming out of the Sunshine State — Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman come to mind — it seems more important than ever for the Florida judiciary to protect its institutional integrity. That might explain why the Florida Supreme Court doubled the recommended suspension of a state prosecutor who failed to disclose numerous ex parte contacts with a sitting judge.
On June 20, that court upheld a finding that Howard Scheinberg engaged in conduct that was prejudicial to the administration of justice. The disciplinary action against Scheinberg pertained to the prosecution of Omar Loureiro. In 2007, Scheinberg was the lead prosecutor in a capital murder trial against Loureiro. Former Judge Ana Gardiner was the presiding judge. As a result of that trial, Loureiro was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
Months after the trial concluded, evidence surfaced that Scheinberg had been romantically involved with the judge. During the five months between the jury verdict and sentencing hearing, Scheinberg and Gardiner had exchanged more than 900 phone calls and more than 400 text messages. On average, Scheinberg had communicated with the judge almost 10 times a day during that time but had never disclosed the contacts to opposing counsel.
When the Broward State Attorney’s office learned of the misconduct, it promptly agreed to retry Loureiro: only a second trial could dispel public perceptions that Loureiro had been denied due process.
When the Florida State Bar learned of the misconduct, it promptly initiated disciplinary action. After the complaint was filed, a referee was appointed. She conducted a hearing and issued a report with her findings and recommendations. First, the referee found that Scheinberg’s ex parte contacts and his failure to disclose them prejudiced the judicial system in violation of Florida’s ethics rules. Based on her findings of aggravating and mitigating factors, she recommended a one-year suspension from the practice of law.
Scheinberg challenged the referee’s recommendation as to guilt and the one-year suspension, but received no relief. Instead, the Supreme Court agreed that Scheinberg was guilty of misconduct, even though his contacts with the judge were unrelated to Loureiro’s murder trial. The court explained that Scheinberg’s extensive contacts with Judge Gardiner created “an appearance of impropriety.”
When an attorney becomes romantically involved with the judge presiding over his case, “the judge’s authority necessarily suffers,” the court concluded. First, the relationship itself undercuts the judge’s role as a detached neutral party. Moreover, when a judge presides over cases involving her romantic partner, she loses her single most important source of authority — the perception that she is absolutely impartial.
The court then addressed the recommended sanction. Although it found no error with the referee’s findings on aggravating and mitigating factors, the court held that a one-year suspension was not sufficient. Scheinberg’s conduct created an appearance of impropriety based on substantial communications that were never disclosed to the defense. And it all occurred in the context of a capital murder trial!
The resulting harm was obvious: Scheinberg’s conduct led to an investigation and a retrial, both of which consumed public and private resources. In the court’s view, the seriousness of Scheinberg’s violation and resulting prejudice to the administration of justice required a suspension twice as long. On that basis, the court suspended Scheinberg for two years and ordered him to cover the Florida Bar’s costs.