FL Supreme Court disciplines trial judge who interfered with a contested judicial election

The Florida Supreme Court building. Credit: Michael Moline

The Florida Supreme Court has ordered a public reprimand for Citrus County Judge Richard Howard for trying to discourage an election challenge against a fellow judge in a local contested judicial election.

The court didn’t identify the other people involved, but the Citrus County Chronicle has named former Brooksville lawyer Pam Vergara as the Brooksville lawyer Howard tried to persuade not to run against sitting Judge George Angeliadis.

Howard suggested that Vergara instead target another sitting judge, identified by the newspaper as Mary Hatcher, whom Howard viewed as more vulnerable. By contrast, Howard thought Angeliadis “was doing a good job and enjoyed the support of the community,” as the court put it.

Otherwise, Howard suggested she forgo a campaign or seek appointment to the bench later. Governors are entitled to fill court vacancies between judicial elections.

“Judge Richard Howard is ordered to appear before this court for the administration of a public reprimand at a time to be established by the clerk of this court,” the high court said in a unanimous unsigned decision on Thursday.

That means he’ll have to travel to the Supreme Court building in Tallahassee and stand before the justices to receive a public scolding. He gets to remain on the trial bench, but with a black mark against his name.

The court said Howard accepted responsibility and cooperated with the investigation.

Vergara did run against Angeliadis and defeated him in August 2019, the Chronicle reported. The jurisdiction in question is the Fifth Circuit, which covers Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, and Sumter counties.

The high court rejected a Judicial Qualifications Commission finding that Howard had improperly endorsed or opposed a judicial candidate, concluding he hadn’t done so publicly.

Still, the court said, Howard “failed to uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary”; “created the appearance of impropriety”; “failed to promote public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary”; and made “improper use of the prestige of his position in favor of the private interest” of Angeliadis.