Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the February 1, 2016 Notice of Formal Charges filed by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) against Florida Twelfth Circuit Judge John Lakin for allegedly requesting and accepting Tampa Bay Rays tickets from a law firm which had a case pending before him. The JQC charges are here: https://efactssc-public.flcourts.org/casedocuments/2016/182/2016-182_notice_77834.pdf
According to the JQC Notice of Formal Charges and charges, in June 2015, the judge was presiding over the personal injury case of Wittke v. Walmart June, wherein the plaintiff accused Walmart of negligence, which caused her to fall and injure herself. After a trial, Walmart was found by the jury not to be liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. The day after the verdict was rendered, the judge asked his judicial assistant to contact the law firm which defended the plaintiff to request tickets for that night’s game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox.
The judge received five tickets valued at about $100 each, and he indicated that he only used two of the tickets. The judge was from the Boston area. According to the JQC Notice: “The tickets you received were excellent seats, being located seven to eight rows back, between home plate and first base”.
According to the JQC Notice, the plaintiff’s law firm filed a motion 6 days later to set aside the verdict and for a new trial. The motion was heard on August 21, 2015; however, the judge did not rule at that time. On August 25, 2015, the judge requested and received five more tickets to a Tampa Bay Rays game from the law firm and, on August 26, 2015, the judge issued an order setting aside the verdict and granting a new trial. The Order stated that “(n)o reasonable jury could have returned a verdict finding that the Defendant was not at least partially liable for the injuries sustained by the plaintiff based on the evidence presented at trial.” The Notice further states: “(y)our extraordinary action allowed the Plaintiff a second opportunity to seek damages from Walmart. You have acknowledged that during your tenure on the bench you have never before overturned a jury verdict.”
According to the JQC Notice, the Chief Circuit Judge for the 12th Judicial District told the judge his conduct was inappropriate and told him to report it to the JQC. The judge then disclosed that he had received tickets from the firm both to the JQC and to Walmart attorneys; however, according to the Notice, “(y)our subsequent disclosure to the parties on October 9, 2015, stated only that, ‘I previously received Tampa Bay Rays baseball tickets from the…law firm.’ Your disclosure did not include the dates that you accepted the tickets, nor did you even explain that you had accepted the tickets while the Wittke matter was pending.” The JQC Notice also states that the judge received baseball tickets from two other law firms which have appeared before him.
The JQC rules prohibit judges from conducting activities outside of the courtroom which cast a reasonable doubt on his or her ability to be impartial, undermine the judge’s independence, or demean the judicial office and from “accepting gifts, favors, bequests or loans from lawyers or their firms if they have come or are likely to come before the judge.”
The JQC rules provide that the judge may file an answer to the Notice and charges within 20 days. The JQC will hold hearings and make a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court, which will issue a formal order/opinion and impose discipline if the judge is found guilty.
Bottom line: This is a somewhat extraordinary and surprising case. Perhaps the judge was unaware of the rules prohibiting accepting gifts from lawyers, specifically when the case is pending before him; however, under the most unfavorable argument, the judge could be alleged to have accepted the gift and issued favorable ruling as a direct result of the law firm’s gift. Both lawyers and judges must be very aware of these clear prohibitions and also that the consequences of a violation of the rules, whether intentional or unintentional, will most likely be very severe.
Be careful out there!
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Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire
Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.
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