POMPANO BEACH — A Broward County circuit judge’s decision to resign her post rather than further defend her reputation in the wake a 2014 drunken driving conviction illustrates the Florida Supreme Court’s determination to enforce high standards of conduct for judicial officers.
That’s the conclusion of Michael J. Cohen, the executive director of Florida Lawyers Assistance, a nonprofit group that aids Florida attorneys experiencing alcohol, drug or psychological problems. Judge Cynthia Imperato’s decision to submit her resignation last month means a total of three Broward County judges have stepped down from the bench over the past year after high-profile cases involving allegations of driving under the influence.
“I wouldn’t obviously second-guess the Supreme Court, but the general trend of the court has been much more conservative, both in evaluating the behavior of lawyers and judges,” Cohen told the Florida Record.
He added that the ultimate outcome of such a protracted case as Imperato’s might have been different five to 10 years ago.
“Attorneys and judges have always been held to a higher standard, but the standard is even more highly enforced now,” Cohen explained. “The makeup of the court is more conservative, and they take behavior very seriously.”
Imperato was convicted of driving under the influence in December 2014 after a social gathering in Palm Beach County. As a result, the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission recommended that the Supreme Court should discipline her further, but it stopped short of recommending that she be removed. A commission panel called for the judge to receive a $20,000 fine, a public rebuke and a three-month suspension without salary.
In January, the high court ordered that Imperato explain why she should not be removed from her post, suggesting that the court may have had a stiffer punishment in mind for her misconduct in 2014. According to the commission’s report, Imperato had a second DUI conviction on her record in 1988.
Two other Broward judges facing DUI allegations, Gisele Pollack and Lynn Rosenthal, agreed to step down in 2015.
Cohen stressed that he didn’t see the responses of the Supreme Court or Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission as punishment for the act of substance abuse. Rather, the public institutions are responding to the serious misconduct of those in the legal profession with alcohol problems.
“I understand what the Supreme Court is concerned about,” Cohen told the Record. “Still, it’s sad that someone loses a position like that over a mental health condition.”
In addition, he noted that high-publicity cases reflect on the judiciary as a whole, and so those who oversee cases involving the discipline, retirement or removal of judges need to take a firm line.
Cohen said that Florida Lawyers Assistance prefers to see attorneys before their behavior becomes an issue that generates hearings or arrests. The organization, a nonprofit formed in 1986, evaluates attorneys with the help of a mental health therapist prior to making recommendations on treatment.
The nonprofit’s caseload over the years has been steady, even as the tolerance for ethical violations in the field of law has diminished. A survey released in February that was conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association found that about 1 in 5 practicing attorneys have a drinking problem, while about 19 percent show signs of anxiety and 28 percent experience some level of depression.
Moreover, these problems seem to manifest in the attorneys’ first 10 years of practice, the study found.