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Inquiry Concerning A Judge No. 16-496 v. Yacucci

Supreme Court of Florida

November 2, 2017

INQUIRY CONCERNING A JUDGE NO. 16-496
v.
PHILIP JAMES YACUCCI, JR.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION AND, IF FILED, DETERMINED.

         Original Proceeding - Judicial Qualifications Commission

          Honorable Kerry I. Evander, Chair, Honorable Robert Morris, Past Chair, Michael Louis Schneider, Executive Director and General Counsel, and Alexander John Williams, Special Counsel and Assistant General Counsel, Judicial Qualifications Commission, Tallahassee, Florida; and Lauri Waldman Ross of Ross & Girten, Counsel to the Hearing Panel of the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, Miami, Florida, for Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, Petitioner

          Robert J. Watson of Robert J. Watson, P.A., Stuart, Florida, for Judge Philip Yacucci, Jr., Respondent

          PER CURIAM.

         This matter is before the Court to review the determination of the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) that Judge Philip James Yacucci, Jr., violated Canons 1, 2A, 3B(8), 3B(9), and 3(E)(1) of the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct. The JQC recommends: (1) a public reprimand; (2) a thirty-day suspension without pay; (3) completion of a judicial ethics course within one year; and (4) payment of the costs of the JQC proceedings. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 12, Fla. Const. For the reasons that follow, we approve the JQC's findings and recommended discipline.

         BACKGROUND

         Judge Yacucci has served as a county court judge in the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit since 2002. On December 8, 2016, the JQC Investigative Panel filed a Notice of Formal Charges against Judge Yacucci for conduct in violation of Canons 1 (judge shall uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary), 2A (judge shall respect and comply with the law and shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary), 3B(8) (judge shall dispose of judicial matters promptly, efficiently and fairly), 3B(9) (judge shall refrain from commenting publicly or non-publicly in ways that could interfere with fair trials or hearings), and 3E(1) (judge shall disqualify himself or herself in proceedings where his or her impartiality might reasonably be questioned) of the Code of Judicial Conduct. In his answer, Judge Yacucci denied that his conduct was violative of the Code of Judicial Conduct. On May 1, 2017, the JQC Hearing Panel held an evidentiary hearing, and issued its "Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Recommendations of the Hearing Panel, Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission" (Findings) on June 29, 2017. In re Judge Philip James Yacucci, Jr., No. 16-496 (Fla. Jud. Qual. Comm'n June 29, 2017).

         FINDINGS OF THE HEARING PANEL

         Judge Yacucci's violations occurred during the course of an adversarial and contentious professional relationship between Judge Yacucci and attorney Stephen Smith. Id. at 1. Judge Yacucci has served as a county court judge in St. Lucie County since 2002. Id. at 3. Smith, who joined his current employer "The Ticket Clinic" in 2009, handled all of the Ticket Clinic's cases in St. Lucie County. Id. at 4. Judge Yacucci held Smith in contempt in 2009 for accidentally showing up late to a hearing, and again in 2014 where he jailed Smith for five days for "hotly disputed" reasons. Id. During the 2014 contempt finding, Judge Yacucci announced in the courtroom that he had "lost confidence" in Smith, and subsequently filed a Florida Bar complaint which was later resolved with no imposition of discipline. Id. at 4-5.

         Thereafter, in 2014, Smith ran against Judge Yacucci for a county court seat in a highly combative election. Id. at 5. Judge Yacucci sued Smith and an electioneering communication organization ("ECO") for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Id. Judge Yacucci obtained a temporary injunction against the ECO, but the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Concerned Citizens for Judicial Fairness, Inc. v. Yacucci, 162 So.3d 68, 72-73 (Fla. 4th DCA 2014), overturned it for lacking supporting evidence and for triggering First Amendment concerns. Id. at 5-6.

         Before election day, a public altercation between Smith and Judge Yacucci occurred at a polling place. Id. at 6. Judge Yacucci asserted that Smith made a sexual innuendo about Judge Yacucci's wife, and that he responded with heated and profane words. Id. Smith asserted that the judge verbally attacked and physically assaulted him, and so he subsequently sued Judge Yacucci for assault, battery, and defamation. Id. During a televised interview in his courtroom immediately following the incident, Judge Yacucci remarked that Smith "should not be a lawyer, " "should not be in a courtroom, " and that he is "truly a disgrace as a judicial candidate and really as a human being." Id.

         In December 2014, Judge Yacucci won the election, but later appeared before the JQC to discuss his behavior during the election. Id. Judge Yacucci informed the Investigative Panel that he would recuse himself on Smith's cases, which he did for the following two-and-a-half years. Id. at 7. However, in September 2016, Judge Yacucci refused to recuse himself in State v. Harracksingh, 2015-CT-2111, resolving that he had recused himself on Smith's cases for long enough and that Smith "was simply a conduit of the Ticket Clinic, " which Judge Yacucci surmised had funded the ECO in the election campaign against him and was attempting to forum shop by funding judicial campaigns. Id. at 7-8.

         On October 5, 2016, Smith petitioned for a writ of prohibition disqualifying Judge Yacucci from presiding over the Harracksingh case. Id. at 8. Thereafter, Judge Yacucci on his own initiative filed a response to Smith's petition, detailing the history of disputes between Judge Yacucci and Smith. Id. Judge Yacucci later denied additional motions to disqualify filed by Smith, despite their legal sufficiency, because he wanted an appellate ruling and was "not going to recuse ...


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