The state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which regulates the conduct of Florida judges and judicial candidates, has found probable cause to charge Hillsborough Circuit Judge Nancy Jacobs with violating rules governing judicial campaigns during a bitter and contentious race last year for her seat.
Jacobs unseated incumbent Circuit Judge Jared Smith to win the seat after a campaign that focused heavily on abortion rights, with religious overtones.
Jacobs criticized Smith for a ruling prohibiting a minor from having an abortion without her parents’ consent, in part because of her grades. Allies of Jacobs accused Smith of anti-semitism, partly in connection with comments by his wife before a church group.
During the campaign, Jacobs acknowledged filing a complaint with the Judicial Qualifications Commission against Smith, but wouldn’t discuss its contents. Smith declined to discuss any possible complaints, but allies of his discussed a possible complaint.
The “notice of charges” filed with the state Supreme Court by the Qualifications Commission Thursday doesn’t say who filed the complaint against Jacobs.
In December, shortly after his loss to Jacobs, Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Smith to an appellate court seat.
The race violated the norms of usually low-key judicial contests, with heavy spending by outside groups and negative campaigning. In most judicial races, specific issues are rarely discussed and the candidates don’t comment about each other, partly because of strict regulations on what candidates can say.
The charge notice lists four charges stemming from public comments, text messages and social media postings by Jacobs during the campaign, or made by her supporters and posted on her campaign’s social media accounts. It also cites two incidents that occurred since her election.
The campaign-related charges concern statements the Qualifications Commission says she made about Smith, including calling him “a bigot, an anti semite … not a good person” and that he “hates me and people like me.” It accuses her of saying Smith is a fair judge “only if litigants look like him or think like him.” Referring to the abortion ruling, its charges Jacobs said Smith “ordered her to have a forced birth,” and commented that “We need to get this scary man out.”
The charging notice says Jacobs sought and publicized an endorsement by the Planned Parenthood political action committee. That “appeared to be a commitment to ruling a certain way in cases involving abortion,” the Qualifications Commission said. Judicial candidates aren’t allowed to take positions on specific cases in their campaigns.
Since taking office, the notice says, she sought to recruit a candidate to run against another judge and “discourteously” referred to a lawyer as a “fat, balding” man.
The notice says Jacobs “has admitted to the conduct and that it violated the Code of Judicial Conduct” in each of the six charges.
Her attorney, Brian Tannebaum of Miami, who specializes in defending lawyers, didn’t respond to specific questions about the case, but said via email that Jacobs “has served the people of Hillsborough County well and looks forward to continuing to fairly and impartially administer justice.”
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Under the Qualifications Commission rules, Jacobs has 20 days from the filing of charges to file a response. A hearing will follow.
If a judge is found to have violated rules of conduct, the commission can recommend discipline ranging from a reprimand to removal from the bench. The state Supreme Court makes the final decision.
According to the Florida Constitution, five of the commission’s 15 members are appointed by DeSantis, and four by the Florida Bar. The other six are chosen by fellow judges.