October 2018 - Rocket Docket

by Richard W. Millar, Jr.

According to Wikipedia, which, like the Great Carnac, knows all, the phrase “rocket docket refers to a court…that is noted for its speedy disposition of cases…that come before it, often by maintaining strict adherence to the law as pertains to filing deadlines, etc.”

In certain courts, I have felt that filing deadlines were a tool more for decisional avoidance than speed, but I digress. Certainly, the phrase is at least emblematic of the tension between expedition and contemplation, both of which courts are somehow required to accommodate, like navigating between Scylia and Charybdis.

However, as readers (hopefully plural) of this column have tumbled to over the years, I am always fascinated by those who push the envelope to extremes. And, of course, I have an example.

How about a court where the cases are moved in such a swift blur that the judge isn’t even seen?

Because he wasn’t there.

Because he took the day off.

And the docket was fake.

No, I am not making this up. The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commissions, which if you follow judicial antics has to be one of the busiest commissions of its kind, recently filed a “Notice of Formal Charges” against the Hon. John Patrick Contini, who, until he “abruptly resigned,” was a judge in Fort Lauderdale.

The first charge reads:

On numerous occasions, you have instructed your Judicial Assistant (JA) to create dockets of fictitious cases or hearings on particular days of the week on which you planned to be absent from the courthouse. Your fabrication of these dockets was designed to create the impression that you were present in the Courthouse, when in fact, you were not. You instructed your JA by text, email, or in person to create these dockets using cases that had settled, or hearings that had already occurred or otherwise been postponed. These contrived dockets also wasted judicial resources by occupying bailiffs, clerks, and other court personnel, who needed to be on standby for hearings that were not real and would never happen.

The five-page notice attached approximately 150 pages of texts and e-mails. Other charges included requiring his assistant to email motions and orders to him, and to “lie and say that you were in trial or unavailable to conduct hearings.” He is further charged with sealing a case involving a close friend and campaign advisor; sealing a motion calling for his disqualification (calling it “inflammatory”); posting confidential information about an adoption case on social media; treating staff, litigants, and lawyers in a demeaning or arrogant manner; and coercing defendants into “confessions” in exchange for lighter sentences. He also allegedly asked his assistant to pay his bills, make personal calls, and arrange travel, but those, at least in my mind, are lily gilding and pale in comparison to the wonderfully imaginative idea of creating a whole day’s worth of docketed hearings to disguise the fact that he was playing hooky for “in excess of thirty days since the beginning of 2018.”

Judge Contini was first elected in 2014 and got into trouble early when assigned to criminal court, where he was charged with playing favorites with defense lawyers leading to a reprimand from the Florida Supreme Court and transfer to family court. He resigned July 6, 2018, and the “docket” charges were filed a couple of weeks later. It is probably safe to assume that he saw them coming.

The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission’s docket is real.

Richard W. Millar, Jr. is Of Counsel with the firm of Friedman Stroffe & Gerard in Irvine. He can be reached at rmillar@fsglawyers.com.