Florida's Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), which has the job of maintaining the integrity of the state's courts, should investigate Dade County Circuit Judge Alfonso C. Sepe, who has injected himself into the boiling politics of the governor's race. Sepe's misconduct was triggered when Rep. Bill Nelson, the front-running Democrat to replace Gov. Bob Martinez, kicked off his campaign in Miami with an ill-considered stunt. Nelson criticized Martinez's open-back-door prison policy by comparing Charlie Street, who is charged with killing two Miami police officers after he was released early from a Florida prison, to the infamous Willie Horton, the Massachusetts convict used by President Bush in his 1988 campaign to arouse racial fears among some voters.
Nelson has been criticized and defended, as has Martinez's prison release policy. That's all a part of the political debate.
Unfortunately, Judge Sepe injected his court into that political debate. The judge made headlines when he wrote Nelson warning that his speech might interfere with Charlie Street's fair trial. That was odd enough, since the code of judicial ethics prohibits a judge from commenting outside his courtroom on a pending case.
What Judge Sepe did next was even more political. He became a part of Martinez's campaign. Don Pride reported in the Tampa Tribune that the judge called the governor's office and faxed a copy of his letter to Peter Dunbar, Martinez's general counsel. The call arrived in Dunbar's office four days before the letter reached Nelson. Then the judge did something else. He sent another copy of his letter to the Miami Herald reporter who wrote about Nelson.
Sepe said he wasn't violating the judicial code or being political. If this isn't a judge playing politics, what is it?
The incident also raised questions about Judge Sepe's qualifications to sit on the bench. It was revealed that in 1975, while Sepe was a county judge, a woman charged that in a case before him Sepe offered clemency for her husband if she would have sex with the judge. A special prosecutor did not indict him, but Sepe resigned his judgeship before the Judicial Qualifications Commission could decide whether to recommend that he be removed.
Despite that incident, Martinez appointed Sepe, then a Democrat, to the Circuit Court judgeship in January of 1988. Shortly afterward, like many other Martinez judicial appointees, Judge Sepe switched his registration to Republican.
It is clear that by sending copies of his Nelson letter to Nelson's opponent and the newspaper, Judge Sepe became an active participant in politics. Florida must not tolerate political judges of any party. The JQC should recommend that the Supreme Court remove him from office. No doubt Judge Sepe can get a job working directly, rather than indirectly, with the Martinez campaign.