Legal Ethics

Ethics complaint cites judge's 'inexplicable' and 'bizarre' behavior and 'paranoia'

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Even before she assumed the bench nearly four years ago, a Florida judge had begun to exhibit “a pattern of behavior which is inexplicable, appears to demonstrate instability and is disruptive to the 18th Judicial Circuit,” contends an ethics complaint filed Monday against Judge Linda Schoonover.

Perhaps best-known for sending a Facebook friend request to a party in a divorce case who contended the judge retaliated against her when she refused it, Schoonover demonstrated “paranoia” and made incorrect statements on multiple occasions, the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission says in its notice of formal charges (PDF).

The filing contends that Schoonover or someone acting on her behalf contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The complainant said that the judge’s office had been bugged, when it wasn’t; accused a former chief circuit judge of assigning Schoonover a larger than standard amount of work, which he didn’t; and complained that unauthorized persons were shown entering Schoonover’s chambers on a security camera she had installed.

As with the other issues reported, the FDLE investigated the claim about unauthorized entrance. After reviewing the video footage, the agency determined that the individuals in question were court maintenance personnel, the JQC says, characterizing the incident as an example of “bizarre” behavior on the judge’s part. “Your bizarre behavior was based in part on your belief that your judicial colleagues and courthouse personnel have or intended to mistreat you,” wrote the JQC.

The complaint also accuses Schoonover of a lack of competence, contending that she made a number of rulings in family law cases that lacked an adequate basis or involved undue delay and failed to complete all of her work, forcing other judges to take on an unfair share of the circuit’s caseload.

However, the judge’s lawyer, Greg Eisenmenger, paints a very different picture of the situation, telling the ABA Journal that his client appropriately passed on to law enforcement authorities concerns that were brought to her by others. Then, when asked to speculate by the FDLE about what was being said, she offered her thoughts, only to have them attributed to her later as absolute beliefs.

More than one person, for example, suggested to Schoonover that her office was bugged after she unseated an incumbent, Eisenmenger said, and his clients reported those concerns. Schoonover herself did install a security camera in her chambers, the attorney said, but this followed a death threat against the judge. He declined to give any details because the matter is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.

As to the JQC’s issues with Schoonover’s rulings, they fall far short of what is required to impose discipline under judicial independence standards, Eisenmenger said.

Noting that the judge’s ability to respond to the investigation, up to this point, has been limited, he said he expects Schoonover to demonstrate at the trial of the ethics case that she has done nothing justifying discipline.

“We feel that the complaint is misguided,” Eisenmenger said. “A lot of what is being attributed to my client as ‘bizarre’ behavior is people taking comments that she made out of context.”

Schoonover remains on the bench, he noted, and currently presides over a juvenile dependency call to which she has been assigned as part of a standard judicial rotation process.

News 13 Orlando, the Orlando Sentinel (sub. req.) and WESH have stories.

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