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Florida Judge Publicly Reprimanded for Trying to Ease Jail Overcrowding

On May 6, 2009, the Florida Supreme Court publicly reprimanded a St. Lucie County judge who had tried to do something about overcrowding at the county’s jail.

Earlier this year, following a two-day hearing, the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) found Judge Clifford H. Barnes guilty of creating an appearance of impropriety, advocating a position that benefited a third party while sitting as a judge, making unfounded public attacks on the judiciary and other public officials, and demeaning the integrity and independence of the judiciary.

In affirming the JQC’s decision, the Supreme Court held that Barnes had “clearly crossed the line between what is appropriate and what is not” when he filed a petition for mandamus in an appellate court to ease the jail’s overcrowding problem. Chief Justice Peggy Quince reprimanded him for undermining public confidence in the judiciary by criticizing other judges and public officials, and for advocating for defendants.

After Barnes was elected in 2005, another judge requested that he be removed from the criminal division because he was inappropriately setting or reducing bonds to relieve jail overcrowding. When Barnes was removed from the criminal division, he filed the petition for a writ of mandamus. It sought to require a public defender, the state attorney, the county sheriff and other judges to provide criminal defendants “a meaningful first appearance hearing.”

He contended that indigent defendants were not provided counsel, which meant they were not released on bond prior to trial. A study of the St. Lucie County jail by the Institute for Law and Policy Planning found that the lack of a pretrial release program was a major cause of the jail’s overcrowding. Barnes later withdrew his petition.

Barnes, who was a St. Lucie County Commissioner for 12 years prior to becoming a judge, remains on the bench. He accepted the public reprimand. “They have the final word. They are my boss,” he noted. The Florida Supreme Court also taxed costs against Barnes in the amount of $4,595.83. See: Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 05-437 v. re Clifford H. Barnes, Florida S.Ct., Case No. SC06-2119.

Additional sources: National Law Review, Associated Press, Miami Herald

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Related legal case

Inquiry Concerning a Judge, No. 05-437 v. re Clifford H. Barnes