By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE Fla. (Reuters) - The Florida Supreme Court disbarred a former circuit judge on Thursday for having a "personal and emotional relationship" with a prosecutor that started during a death penalty case he was trying before her.
The seven high court justices voted unanimously to toughen the penalty recommended by a hearing officer, who had called for a one-year suspension of Judge Ana Gardiner.
The high court said such an ethical lapse in a capital case that later resulted in a death sentence being reduced to life in prison, and her initial efforts to downplay her involvement with assistant state attorney Howard Scheinberg, required her disbarment.
The court said Gardiner had a chance meeting with Scheinberg at a restaurant during the murder trial of Omar Loureiro in 2007, and they joined some others at a bar after dinner.
Between March 23, several days before a jury returned a guilty verdict against Loureiro, and Aug. 24, when she sentenced him to death, the court said Gardiner and Scheinberg exchanged 949 cell phone calls and 471 text messages.
When the Judicial Qualifications Commission began an investigation in late 2008, the court said Gardiner "failed to disclose the honest and true nature of her relationship with Scheinberg."
It was not until the following April, when the Broward state attorney was investigating, that Gardiner "acknowledged for the first time her ongoing emotional relationship with Scheinberg."
She resigned from the bench in 2010, after 11 years as a judge. The Supreme Court suspended Scheinberg from practice for two years.
After the relationship between judge and prosecutor became known, Loureiro got a new trial and was sentenced to life in prison.
"Considering Gardiner's dishonest conduct and the harm that her actions have caused to the administration of justice in a capital first-degree murder case, we conclude that disbarment is the appropriate action," said the Supreme Court order.
The court also ordered her to pay $8,117.18 in costs.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Sandra Maler)