The Nebraska Supreme Court Friday removed Lincoln County Judge Kent Florom from the bench.
Florom, who has served 19 years as a judge, was removed for violating ethical standards required of judges in Nebraska. Florom was accused of improperly involving himself in the case of Sharon Kramer, a North Platte teacher and North Platte Sensations softball coach convicted of stealing money from the high school booster club concession stand.
Florom helped coach the team.
In its decision, the Supreme Court said a judge should not allow family, social, political, or other relationships to influence the judge’s judicial conduct or judgment.
The Supreme Court also said Florom “abused his judicial position to inter¬fere in two different cases, over the course of several months, for entirely personal reasons.”
The court said Florom used his judicial power to bully attorneys and “not only threatened members of the bar with abuse of judicial power, but repeated his threat, after ample time for reflection, and after having been dissuaded from doing so by the good advice of a fellow judge.”
“There is no excuse for (Florom’s) conduct, and it is hard to imagine conduct that, coming from a judge, could be more damaging to the reputa¬tion of the judiciary,” the decision said.
The Nebraska Supreme Court’s decision agreed with the recommendation of the Commission on Judicial Qualifications that Florom be removed from the bench due to his conduct.
Florom improperly tried to lessen the sanctions against Kramer.
Kramer was eventually fired from the school and lost her teaching certificate for two years.
Florom maintained he became involved as a private citizen and fellow softball coach, not as a judge.
Florom was called before the commission after a complaint was filed against him for judicial impropriety.
The complaint, filed Jan. 29, 2009, claims that Florom violated four ethical canons of the judiciary by not upholding the integrity and independence of the judiciary, not avoiding impropriety, by not performing his duties impartially, and not conducting extra-judicial activities to minimize conflict with judicial obligations.
The complaint said Florom used his judicial influence to intervene in the criminal case of Sharon Kramer.
Florom recused himself from hearing Kramer’s case because he was an assistant coach to Kramer.
Lincoln County Attorney Rebecca Harling prosecuted Kramer’s case of theft.
The complaint said in March of 2008, Florom encountered Harling in the courthouse and asked her if the charges could be avoided if Kramer paid restitution, the complaint said.
Florom testified before the Commission on Judicial Qualifications that other first-time misdemeanor theft offenders paid the restitution and were fined $150. He said he questioned Harling to find out what kind of charge Kramer was facing. He said the Sensations annual budget was $15,000 and he was worried that “Sharon had stolen from that fund and didn’t want anything to do with that.”
Florom testified that he made a joke to Russ Jones, Kramer’s attorney, after Jones was complaining that Kramer’s retainer check had bounced.
“Heck, tell Rebecca (Harling) I’ll pay the restitution,” the complaint said Florom said. The complaint also said Florom offered to put Kramer “on double secret probation.”
Jones conveyed the conversation to Harling according to the complaint, but Jones believed Florom was joking.
Florom testified that his office on the second floor of the Lincoln County Courthouse was where attorneys gathered and they often kidded and ribbed each other. He said he simply went too far.
Florom said he would apologize to everyone after “this ordeal is over” but did not want to call his “sincerity into question.”
Part of the problem, according to Florom, was that he “allowed attorneys to congregate in his office between court hearings in an effort to promote collegiality among members of the bar.”
Florom said he regretted his poor judgment knowing full well that this was a case pending before Judge Kent Turnbull.
Florom said he believed all parties to the conversation knew he was joking and that it was not an attempt to direct or influence the case. He said he believed he had both a personal and professional relationship with Harling and Jones.
Florom expressed regret that his relationship with Harling wasn’t stronger.
On the day Kramer was scheduled to plead guilty, Jones advised Florom of the media’s interest in the hearing. Florom allegedly suggested and discussed with Jones how Kramer could enter her plea early to avoid an open court appearance.
The complaint said Jones interpreted Florom’s suggestion as trying to help a friend. He relayed the suggestions to Harling, who rejected them.
Florom said, in court documents, that it was Jones who made the requests and that he would approve a waiver on the matter if both Jones and Harling agreed.
Florom’s conduct caused unease and uncertainty among the attorneys, the complaint said. It also caused some to feel discomfort and disgust, according to the complaint.
A threat or a promise?
The Supreme Court’s decision also centered on a phone call North Platte School Board Member Jim Paloucek made to Judge Florom.
The complaint also said Florom threatened Paloucek.
Florom sent a message to Paloucek through Jones on July 7, 2008.
“Tell your buddy (Jim Paloucek) if he comes after Sharon Kramer he’s going to be making an enemy he doesn’t want to make.”
Florom believed Kramer’s conviction had jeopardized her teaching position with North Platte High, according to the complaint, and he believed Paloucek might take official steps to affect Kramer’s position.
Jones conveyed the message to Paloucek who, along with law partners Royce Norman and Steve Herman, placed a speakerphone call to Florom at the courthouse.
Paloucek testified that he advised Florom he was on speakerphone with the attorneys and asked him to confirm Jones’ message.
Paloucek said Florom was “matter-of-fact” when he confirmed that Paloucek would be “making a mistake”, taking any action against Kramer and stated “favors extended in the past would not be extended in the future.”
Paloucek said he was “shocked, confused and was physically shaking” after hearing Judge Florom’s remarks.
“It was bizarre,” Paloucek testified. “What would prompt this judge to do what he did?”
Paloucek testified that Judge Florom was trying to “strong-arm” him and used his position as a judge to do that.
“The context was professional,” Paloucek said. “This is what will happen to you if you take action against Kramer.”
“We wondered if he was having an affair with her,” Paloucek said.
The Supreme Court said, in its decision, that Florom should have known that his conduct was unethical. “However, he ignored the Code,” the decision said. “Then he was told that his conduct was unethical, more than once. But he ignored those warnings, and kept doing it anyway. He demonstrated a disregard for ethical rules that a suspension cannot overcome.”
Paloucek said the actions of Judge Florom were “out of character” for him but he also testified that it chilled his faith in Lincoln County Judges.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever go into a Lincoln County courtroom with the same feeling,” Paloucek said. He said he wondered if his law firm would be treated fairly.
Paloucek said it affected Jones and other attorneys too.
“Jones was scared for himself, his family, his practice,” Paloucek said. “I don’t know if what Judge Florom did was a criminal violation but it was a breach of ethics.”
North Platte attorney Royce Norman testified he was “disappointed” in Florom’s actions.
Norman said the three attorneys who heard Florom’s comments on the phone call immediately separated and made notes of the call.
Norman said they then “reluctantly” reported it to the Council for Discipline.
Norman said it was reported to them that Judge Florom had “declared war” on their law firm.
In the phone call, Florom suggested Paloucek and all members of their law firm request recusal from all cases in front of him.
“Judge, I’m going to have to do what I have to do,” Paloucek said.
Both Norman and Paloucek believed Florom’s message to be a threat.
Florom testified that he was upset when he received the phone call having heard a rumor that Kramer could be fired from her coaching job with the Sensations.
Florom admitted saying what he said and said he regretted it.
“I am not a subtle man,” Florom said. “I would have been a lot better off if I’d said nothing.”
Florom said he was frustrated and angry and said he viewed the actions as a vendetta against Kramer made solely for political gain by elected officials.
“I wanted the world to know I was mad,” Florom testified when asked why he did it. “I did not have a specific plan.”
Florom testified that he “just needed to get it off my chest.” He testified that he wanted to insure he didn’t take his anger out on the attorneys or their clients so he asked them to request recusals from him.
Florom said a judge once got mad at him when he was a practicing attorney and took it out on his clients. He said he vowed never to do that when sworn in as a judge 17-years ago.
“If I’m mad at an attorney, I make sure that attorney knows it,” Florom said. “I would never take it out on an attorney in the courtroom.”
Florom admitted that his conduct was willful and that it violated one or more provisions of the Nebraska Code of Judicial Conduct.
“I know I shouldn’t talk like this but I’m a dumb ass,” Judge Florom said.
Florom was also accused of trying to influence the court case of L.W., a young woman who played shortstop for Florom’s softball team.
L.W. had been placed on probation in 2007 and, in March 2008, was back in court for a probation violation.
Florom, who heard the case in his court, transferred the case to Lincoln County Judge Kent Turnbull.
The complaint said Florom tried to influence L.W.’s caseworker from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Megan Luebbe. Florom allegedly told Luebbe that he was talking to her “as a softball coach, not a judge.” He emphasized L.W.’s softball talent and discussed placement recommendations that would allow L.W. to continue to play for Florom’s team, the complaint said.
Florom testified Tuesday that he was just telling Luebbe about the opportunities available for L.W. to get a scholarship. He said it was a “carrot before the donkey” principal.
Florom said he did speak to Luebbe but did not discuss what her recommendation to the court should be. Florom said he was concerned about L.W.’s well being and future success.
Florom also denied that he asked L.W.’s father to ask the other Lincoln County Judge, Kent Turnbull, for a delay on a hearing so his daughter could play in an out-of-town softball tournament, thus giving legal advice, the complaint said.
Florom and his wife served as chaperones for L.W. from a group home during the summer of 2008, the complaint said, and Florom’s position as a judge was a factor in Luebbe approving the outings.
The complaint said Florom made several comments to Harling, who prosecuted L.W.’s case.
“Take care of my shortstop,” Florom allegedly said.
Florom said he was simply “poking the bear” and teasing Harling.
Florom denied influencing the outcome of her case or any action or misconduct that would bring his judicial office into disrepute.
Florom said he no longer allows attorneys to gather in his office and “joke around.” He said he realizes the distinction between professional and personal and intends to keep the changes in place. He also said he should not have put Jones in the middle of his anger towards Paloucek and he shouldn’t have discussed the case with Harling.
Florom also admitted writing a letter of recommendation for Kramer on judicial stationary was not a prudent thing to do.
The Supreme Court said Florom served on the bench for nearly 19 years, and except for the conduct noted here, there is nothing in the record to suggest that his performance has been unsatisfactory.
But the court said Florom demonstrated a lack of regard for ethics that undermined the public’s confidence in the judiciary.
“But the conduct evidenced here is a course of conduct, not an isolated incident.32 And there are several lawyers in the 11th Judicial District whose confidence in the respondent’s fair¬ness as a judge cannot, we believe, be restored,” the court said. “Therefore, we conclude that removal from office is necessary to preserve the integrity of the judicial system.”