Florida judge facing suspension after swearing at defendant, unlawfully throwing man in jail for over a year on contempt charge

Cristóbal Reyes

Orlando Sentinel

A Seminole County judge faces a 60-day suspension without pay for swearing at a defendant before his scheduled hearing in February and unlawfully sentencing a man to a year and a half in jail for contempt weeks earlier.

The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission issued its recommendation against Judge Wayne Culver on Wednesday, and a final decision by the Florida Supreme Court is forthcoming.

The decision to recommend Culver be suspended, written by Chair Michelle Morley, comes months after the judge angrily scolded a defendant who, in a 50-second video, can be seen looking for a seat in the courtroom gallery while another hearing took place.

“Do you want to be held in contempt and go to jail?” Culver asks. After getting no response, he shouted, “I asked you a [expletive] question, [expletive].”

YouTube video

The commission said Culver’s behavior in that incident was “unnecessarily confrontational and escalated the disturbance and disruption,” though it noted Culver’s apology to the man and his recusal from his case.

Weeks earlier Culver sentenced a defendant representing himself to 537 days in jail for interrupting an unrelated Jan. 25 proceeding, for which he didn’t file a signed judgment of guilt while also failing to tell the man of his right to appeal the decision.

Culver also told him that his words were “the most important words you’ll ever hear as long as you live as an organism on this planet” and threatened to lock him up so long, “you’re going to have to have the jail renamed after you,” comments the commission believed “served to raise the level of tension in the courtroom.”

The decision was vacated in May.

“[B]oth instances were propelled by, not only a failure to de-escalate, but the judge’s own rapid escalation of the confrontation through sarcasm, yelling, cursing, or other injudicious behavior,” Morley wrote.

Culver has only been on the bench since January 2021. The commission said the fact both incidents happened within weeks of each other “could signal trouble if appropriate intervention is not undertaken now.”

Along with the suspension, Culver was ordered to complete an anger management course and undergo stress management counseling, which the commission noted he had already completed, along with sensitivity and professionalism training, before the decision was filed.

“The Commission believes that such a sanction serves to remind judges and assure the public that judges in the State of Florida are held to the highest standard of personal conduct,” Morley concluded.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission’s determination. The commission’s findings are a recommendation that must be approved by the Florida Supreme Court to take effect.

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