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Florida attorneys who criticized discrimination ruling should be suspended, judge says

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A judge recommended 30-day suspensions for a father-daughter pair of lawyers in Florida who spoke out after another judge overturned a jury’s $2.7 million ruling in favor of a Black doctor in a racial discrimination case.

Judge Lisa Herndon also recommended that Orlando attorney Jerry Girley, who is Black, and his daughter, Brooke Girley, complete a workshop on professionalism, according to reports she issued last week, two weeks after the judge held a hearing on the lawyers' discipline case brought by the Florida Bar.

The Florida Supreme Court ultimately will decide what, if any, discipline the Girleys face. Punishment could go as far as disbarment or suspension of the Girleys’ law licenses.

The Girleys' attorney, David Winker, said Monday that his clients planned to ask the judge for a rehearing.

“There are factual things that we think are inaccurate,” Winker said of the reports. “There is a long road now before anything is finalized.”

Supporters of the Girleys say disciplinary action could chill free speech for Florida lawyers.

Earlier this month, Jerry Girley had said the entire affair should be considered in the context of Florida’s political environment, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has removed two Democratic prosecutors, public colleges have been blocked from using taxpayer money on diversity programs and standards for teaching Black history say teachers should instruct middle-school students that enslaved people “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

“What is disturbing to me, as a Black man living in Florida, is I find I have to be careful about what I say, what I think about race, not just in courts, but in schools, in corporate settings,” Girley told The Associated Press. “It’s a weight.”

Jerry Girley represented a Black doctor after he was fired from AdventHealth in Orlando in 2021. A jury sided with Girley’s client on several of the counts and awarded $2.7 million, but the judge presiding over the case overruled that decision because he said the doctor had failed to prove that race was a factor in his dismissal from a radiology residency program.

Girley and his daughter, Brooke Girley — who was not involved in the case — publicly criticized the decision by Judge Kevin Weiss, according to The Florida Bar.

The organization of licensed lawyers in Florida reported that Jerry Girley said in an interview that the decision was improper and the court system doesn’t provide equal justice to all, instead providing a “back door” which is “often used to undermine Black people and their cases.” The Florida Bar said Brooke Girley wrote on social media, “Even when we win, it only takes one white judge to reverse our victory.”

Weiss said in court papers that the Girleys’ allegations “spread across the internet” and led to death threats requiring police protection at his home.

Herndon said in her reports recommending discipline that the Girleys had violated their oath of admission to the Florida Bar by, among other things, failing to maintain the respect due to judicial officers and making false statements.

Regarding the Girleys' arguments that the First Amendment protected their criticism, the judge said their statements weren't protected by free speech and that the lawyers had failed to show they had a factual basis for making the statements.

“The content of the statements undermines public confidence in the court system and is prejudicial to the administration of justice,” Herndon wrote in her reports.

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Follow Mike Schneider on X, formerly known as Twitter: @MikeSchneiderAP.