JASPER — The Hamilton County judge is facing a public reprimand after years of misconduct.
The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission’s investigate panel is recommending that discipline for Kenneth N. “Sonny” Scaff Jr. after an investigation into Scaff’s actions since becoming the county judge in 2007.
According to the investigation, Scaff held first appearance bond hearings over the phone rather than in person and also met with and discussed cases with family members.
According to documents filed Wednesday with the Florida Supreme Court, Scaff admitted to the misconduct during an interview with the panel.
The charges against Scaff focused on for instances from 2017 to 2019 where Scaff set bonds by telephone without participation by the State Attorney, the defendants or their attorneys or the victims or giving notice to those parties.
In one 2017 instance, the panel found that the judge called the Hamilton County Jail to set bonds for three suspects that had been arrested prior to them being booked into the jail. Scaff later called the jail to raise the bonds after initially ordering them to be released on their own recognizance, still before final charges were filed, allegedly telling the booking officer “‘(t)hat is the bonds (sic), no matter if they got (sic) ten charges or a hundred, that’s the bonds.’”
The documents also state that Scaff had improper conversations with defendants or their families as well as witnesses and others involved in cases that were likely to come before him as the judge.
That included the case where the judge set the bonds for the three arrested prior to being booked in the jail, even telling an officer at the jail that he had heard “‘…19 different stories…’”
It also added that Scaff had lowered bonds before after speaking with family members and having his judicial assistant make calls for suspects in an attempt to help them bond out of the jail.
According to the panel, Scaff had been warned by the Commission previously about participating in those improper ex-parte communications.
In its recommendation of discipline, the Commission notes that providing notice and allowing participation in the bond hearings “is critical to maintaining the public’s perception of fairness in the judicial process” in addition to being required.
Likewise, the Commission said the ex-parte communications also can erode faith in the judicial system.
After receiving the notice of allegations and prior to his hearing on the matter, the Commission said Scaff implemented new procedures and safeguards to make sure they don’t happen again. Among those are locking his chambers to prevent the public from entering and having those discussions. He also has placed signs around the courthouse to alert the public that he can’t have those communications with “any person about any court case.” Scaff also wrote letters to law enforcement agencies alerting them that he is not allowed to discuss cases.
The judge has also set a fixed time to conduct first appearance hearings and alerted the State Attorney and Public Defender’s offices of those times and that they may attend. The Commission notes Scaff has also committed to discuss issues with the Chief Judge of the Third Circuit, Mark Feagle, who will serve as a mentor and advisor.