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Judge admits campaigning wrongs, fights to stay on bench

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A County Court judge in Palm Beach County, fought to keep her seat on the bench on Wednesday, asserting her commitment to judicial independence.

Judge Dana Santino took the witness stand, during a hearing of the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission.

The panel convened a hearing in a courtroom in the Palm Beach County Courthouse, to address a complaint filed against Judge Santino.

As she had previously, Santino again admitted she violated a judicial canon during her campaign for judge last fall.

“I sincerely apologize,” Judge Santino testified. “I regret everything that went on.”

Santino ran for judge against Gregg Lerman, a criminal defense attorney.

In her campaign, Santino repeatedly made statements like, Lerman "chooses to represent murderers, rapists, pedophiles," and worked to "free Palm Beach County’s worst criminals.”

An attorney with the Judicial Qualifications Commission, Alexander Williams, characterized Santino's statements as calculated moves to win the election.

Williams told the panel there was an implication Santino would take the side of victims over the accused.

"The problem is that people are innocent until proven guilty,” Lerman said during a break in the hearing.

“And in my 32 years (as a lawyer), and in my over 300 jury trials, I've represented enough innocent people to know you have to be fair and impartial," Lerman continued.

Lerman filed the complaint against Santino and said he believes Santino should be removed from the bench.

“The JQC needs to send a message,” said Lerman.

But Santino and her attorney, Jeremy Kroll, maintained an appropriate punishment would be a public reprimand from the state Supreme Court, and paying a $50,000 fine.

Santino and Kroll said she got bad advice from her campaign manager regarding the statements in question. At the time, Kroll said, Santino thought she was exercising her first amendment rights.

"People have a right to a fair and zealous defense,” Judge Santino said during her testimony.

Kroll urged Qualifications Commission members to consider Santino fitness to serve as a jurist. He said she is doing a good job as judge.

In several weeks, the Judicial Qualifications Commission is expected to make a recommendation on what should happen to Judge Santino.

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The Florida Supreme Court will have the final say.

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