A public reprimand for the Broward County, Fla., judge who presided over the penalty phase and sentencing at the Parkland shooter trial is in the “interests of justice,” a disciplinary panel concluded after reviewing videos and transcripts of the jurist’s courtroom outbursts and a roundly condemned hug of prosecutors.
Judge Elizabeth Scherer, as Law&Crime Network watchers will recall, was criticized far and wide for hugging prosecutors after Nikolas Cruz was sentenced to life without parole for murdering 15 students, a teacher, and a coach, and wounding many more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, Valentine’s Day. Both the hug of the prosecution and “at times, intemperate” conduct towards the defense while on the bench, such as “wrongly” accusing a defense lawyer of threatening her family, warrants a public scolding, the Investigate Panel of the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission recommended in a report containing findings of fact.
The disciplinary proceedings, stylized as Inquiry Concerning a Judge No. 2022-785 re: Hon. Elizabeth A. Scherer, “found probable cause that Judge Scherer violated Canons 1, 2A, 3B(2), 3B(3), 3B(4), 3B(5), 3B(9) of the Code of Judicial Conduct.” Generally, those are violations of rules that state: “A Judge Shall Uphold the Integrity and Independence of the Judiciary”; “A Judge Shall Avoid Impropriety and the Appearance of Impropriety in all of the Judge’s Activities”; and “A Judge Shall Perform the Duties of Judicial Office Impartially and Diligently.”
Judge Scherer violated these rules in four ways, according to a notice of formal charges.
“You chastised defense counsel for the time and manner with which counsel announced the conclusion of the defense mitigation presentation,” the filing began.
Secondly, Cruz’s defense lawyers “raised arguments attempting to curtail vitriolic comments directed at them during sentencing by family members of the victims,” but the judge “failed to take action to stop the comments or enforce the prosecution’s obligations under Section 921.143(2), Florida Statutes.”
Connected to this, Scherer dressed down a defense lawyer and shamed him despite “wrongly” claiming that he had threatened her children:
During the argument referenced in paragraph 2, a member of the defense team stated “Judge, I can assure you that if they were talking about your children, you would definitely notice.” You responded by accusing him of trying to threaten your children. You told him he violated “about every rule of professional responsibility” and ordered that he leave the defense table and sit in the back of the courtroom, effectively denying him the ability to represent his client. You then accused the elected Public Defender of instructing that attorney to ‘say something about (her) children.’ You denied the elected Public Defender’s request for a brief recess to consult with members of the defense team.
Then, most controversially, after sentencing Cruz, Scherer hugged prosecutors on the case who worked in the office where she used to prosecute cases. She was still wearing her judicial robe.
“At the conclusion of the sentencing hearing, you stepped down from the bench in your judicial robe and embraced members of the prosecution team. You also embraced victims and family members of the victims,” the filing said.
The panel also noted that Scherer was disqualified from another death penalty case in April due to her decision to hug the prosecution in the Cruz case. According to the panel, Scherer claimed that she also offered to hug the defense lawyers at the Cruz trial’s end.
Judge Scherer admitted in a stipulation that she violated each of the aforementioned judicial conduct rules.
Scherer did not contest the panel’s recommendations or findings, and she “accepts and agrees to a public reprimand,” the stipulation said.
As recently as May, Judge Scherer said that was resigning from the Broward County bench to pursue “interesting” new career opportunities. The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission specified that Scherer’s resignation was not a condition of her agreement to a public reprimand.
“The Commission is mindful that the Cruz proceedings were emotional and highly contentious. The prosecution sought to put Defendant Cruz to death for his crimes which took the lives of 17 people (only three of whom were over the age of 18). The worldwide publicity surrounding the case created stress and tension for all participants,” the panel found. “However, regardless of the gravity of the accusations or level of attention given a matter, the Commission expects that judge will ensure due process, order and decorum, and and act always with dignity and respect to promote the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. In limited instances during this unique and lengthy case, Judge Scherer allowed her emotions to overcome her judgment.”
The panel’s report has been sent to the Florida Supreme Court for review and approval, records show.
Law&Crime reached out to Scherer’s attorneys of record for comment.
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