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Hillsborough County circuit judge cites the First Amendment in her campaign case

Gavel and scale on the judge desk. Book shelf in the background.
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A Hillsborough County circuit judge is arguing she should be shielded by the First Amendment as she tries to fend off a disciplinary case stemming from a heated 2022 election campaign.

A panel in September alleged that Circuit Judge Nancy Jacobs made “inappropriate and disparaging” remarks about then-Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Jared Smith and improperly injected partisan politics into the campaign for his seat.

A Hillsborough County circuit judge is arguing she should be shielded by the First Amendment as she tries to fend off a disciplinary case stemming from a heated 2022 election campaign.

Attorneys for Circuit Judge Nancy Jacobs last week filed a motion disputing allegations by an investigative panel of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. The panel in September alleged that Jacobs made “inappropriate and disparaging” remarks about then-Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Jared Smith and improperly injected partisan politics into the campaign for his seat. Jacobs defeated Smith, who later was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis as a judge on the 6th District Court of Appeal.

Jacobs contended in last week’s motion that her conduct was protected by the First Amendment.

“The First Amendment protects the speech of judicial candidates, including speech regarding a candidate’s views on issues the public cares about and may even use shorthand like ‘conservative Republican’ and ‘progressive,’ and states cannot impose discipline for speech that has such protection,” the motion said.

Judicial candidates in Florida, however, have long faced more restrictions than other types of candidates.

Lawyers who serve as special counsel for the Judicial Qualifications Commission filed a response Thursday arguing Jacobs’ motion should be rejected. They quoted legal precedents and said the motion “fails to show any violation of the First Amendment. It is well settled that the state has a ‘compelling interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.’”

The Judicial Qualifications Commission makes recommendations to the Florida Supreme Court, which has ultimate disciplinary authority over judges. The documents in Jacobs’ case were posted on the Supreme Court website.