TALLAHASSEE, Florida (AP/Tallahassee.com) - A Florida judge is facing ethics charges alleging she's using her office to promote a private interest - her for-profit religious ministry.
An investigative panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission filed the allegation on Wednesday against Leon County Judge Judith Hawkins.
The panel accused the Tallahassee-based judge of selling or attempting to sell religious books, study guides and other publications to lawyers and staffers at the county courthouse.
"Your involvement with Gaza Road Ministries has caused you to devote less than your full time and attention to your judicial duties," the JQC's filing says of Hawkins. "You have explained that as a judge, you and your judicial assistant have a great deal of free time, so you feel free to use your judicial chambers and out-of-court free time to conduct your for-profit business and schedule business appointments. You often take time away from your judicial duties to promote your business to the detriment of the prompt and efficient administration of justice."
Hawkins, first elected in 1996, was the first African-American elected in a contested race in the 2nd Judicial Circuit and the first African-American female judge in the circuit. She did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Under judicial ethics rules, a judge can't "lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others." Judges found guilty of judicial misconduct can face penalties from fines and reprimand to suspension or removal from office.
Court documents say the business' website, gazaroadministries.com, include a photo of Hawkins in her judicial robe sitting on the Leon County Court bench. Other photos also show her in judicial robes.
"In addition you have sold or attempted to sell your books, study guides and other publications in the Leon County Courthouse, in the parking garage of the courthouse, in your chambers and even in the courtroom in which you preside," the document states.
The JQC added that the people who bought her books and publications include attorneys who regularly appear before her and court staff.
"There is a disparity in authority between your position and those to whom you have sold within the courthouse," the document states.
Hawkins has 20 days to respond to the complaint. The case will then go to a six-member panel of the JQC, which will preside over a public hearing before going into closed session to determine whether a violation occurred and, if so, what the punishment should be.
If wrongdoing is found, a recommendation would go on to the Florida Supreme Court for final action.
Her business website says she has published a devotional book for women along with other written materials and participated in a number of international mission trips, from building a school in Costa Rica to preaching in Africa, Asia, South America and Hispañola.
She listed the $13,518 from Gaza Road Ministries on her 2011 financial-disclosure statement, along with $20,206 from three other businesses, according to Florida Commission on Ethics records.