Hillsborough Judge Nancy Jacobs fights for job as troubles mount

The latest controversy concerns an offensive Facebook joke, which Jacobs suggested was the result of a “hack.”
Hillsborough County Judge Nancy Jacobs.
Hillsborough County Judge Nancy Jacobs. [ handout ]
Published Nov. 26, 2023

TAMPA — The 2022 judicial race between Nancy Jacobs and then-Hillsborough Circuit Judge Jared Smith was an uncharacteristically rough-and-tumble affair, featuring an abortion rights focus, partisan and religious overtones, and allegations of antisemitism.

Smith’s defeat, a rarity for a sitting judge, was negated months later by his gubernatorial appointment to an appeals court.

A year later, it is Jacobs who is fighting to protect her job — and her reputation. A discipline case looming in the Florida Supreme Court alleges she violated judicial rules for allowing partisan statements to proliferate and for attacking Smith personally. In a recent response to the charges against her, Jacobs acknowledged some mistakes.

“Judge Jacobs regrets that the 2022 race took the path that it did,” wrote her attorney, Ryan Barack. “But (she) hopes this panel will recognize that it was not her actions alone, but a culmination of many factors that made it a more difficult race than other judicial elections.”

Add to that new complaints about Jacobs’ behavior since taking the bench. The latest dust-up: an offensive joke about Islam spotted on her personal Facebook page, which Jacobs suggested was the result of a “hack.”

How things got here

This all started with abortion.

Smith attracted a deluge of criticism after an appeals court overturned a ruling he made which declined permission for a 17-year-old girl to obtain an abortion without her parents’ consent. The written opinion stated that Smith abused his judicial discretion. Unflattering headlines followed. So did criticism from abortion-rights advocates.

In the wake of the abortion controversy, Jacobs, a longtime Tampa attorney, began a run against Smith.

Judges and those running to join the bench are restricted from political speech or otherwise engaging in behavior that violates judicial canons — rules meant to preserve the integrity and independence of the judiciary.

Jacobs collected endorsements from organizations including Planned Parenthood and Indivisible Action Tampa Bay. Dueling campaign ads criticized Smith over the abortion ruling and accused Jacobs of harboring a “woke ... liberal agenda.”

Amid an already tense campaign, a video surfaced showing Smith with his wife, Suzette, at a church event. An evangelical Christian, Smith stood silently as his wife told the group that Jacobs, who is Jewish, “needs Jesus,” and that her “heart is very hard toward God.”

That and other comments spurred accusations of antisemitism. Jacobs beat Smith in the August election, 52% to 48%.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission, the state entity that investigates complaints against judges, filed formal charges against Jacobs in September. They cited a litany of statements and social media posts that she or her supporters made during the campaign. Some attacked Smith personally. Some questioned his fairness as a judge. Some struck a highly partisan tone.

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The commission also referenced a text message Jacobs sent to a citizen in which she called Smith “a bigot, an antisemite,” and said he was “not a good person,” and “hates me and people like me.”

In her response to the charges, Jacobs disagreed that it was inappropriate to call out the conduct of Smith and his supporters as being antisemitic.

“Judge Jacobs’ Jewish religion and cultural heritage became an issue used by her opponent to persuade people that she would not make a good judge and not to vote for her,” Barack wrote. “Judge Jacobs attempted to ignore this and went out of her way to avoid commenting on the antisemitism, but she admits to stating it in this instance.”

The commission quoted her words at a July 2022 candidate forum in which she said that Smith’s religion “has wrapped up his entire life. ... Your God and your Bible should not be your moral compass. You need to set those things at the door and make a decision as a judge and do your job as a judge.”

Those comments, according to Jacobs’ response, were taken from a longer speech in which she spoke about the separation between church and state.

Some of the social media posts cited in the charging document were made by Jacobs’ supporters, Barack wrote. But she accepted responsibility for amplifying them.

Since the campaign, her attorney wrote, she has “expressed remorse to the impacted individuals.”

More troubles and a hack

Along with the campaign-related complaints, the commission alleges that Jacobs last March tried to solicit a lawyer to run against a fellow judge, with whom she did not have a good relationship. The judge is not named in the charge notice, but Jacobs’ response acknowledges a poor relationship with Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robin Fuson.

Jacobs denied soliciting anyone to run against Fuson, saying the possibility simply came up in conversation.

Court documents also reference comments she made about a lawyer who’d appeared before her. When the lawyer, who is not named, was late in returning to the courtroom, Jacobs quipped that someone should call the restaurant where he was believed to be and ask if there was a “fat, balding lawyer there.”

Her response states that the comment was a “one-time error in judgment.”

Now comes the Facebook joke.

The joke, which in screenshots appeared to have been reposted to Jacobs’ Facebook page, is a story about an Islamic preacher, who tells a cab driver to turn off music in his taxi because it is “the music of the nonbelievers.” The driver then stops the cab and tells the preacher that in the time of the prophet, there was peace, and to “shut up, go outside and wait for a camel.”

Jacobs, whose Facebook account is not publicly visible, later posted a message saying her account had been “hacked.”

“Do not accept any friend requests,” read the message, which was shared by her lawyer. “It was hacked a few days ago.”

Screenshots of the post circulated in the legal community earlier this month.

“If these snapshots are verified as truly coming from Judge Jacobs, they are extremely disturbing, completely improper, and we believe that such conduct definitely erodes confidence in the judiciary,” said Omar Saleh, an attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations Florida.

Jacobs referred questions about the joke to Barack, her attorney, who said simply that “she was hacked.”

Erich Kron, a security awareness advocate for the cybersecurity firm KnowBe4, said it is common for bad actors to take over a person’s Facebook profile, an occurrence that is often the result of a compromised password. In many cases, though, such takeovers result in multiple posts to the person’s account, which typically relate to scams.

“It’s tough to say whether or not it was actually hacked,” Kron said of the post on Jacobs’ page. “I will say social media has been a target of things for quite some time.”

Whatever the case, Jacobs remains in an uncertain position. Her case is set for a hearing in March.