By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Judicial races are supposed to be civilized electoral contests. Unless the candidate is a member of the Diaz de la Portilla political family gunning for Miami-Dade County’s first Haitian-American judge – then sleazy campaigning is on brand.
However, Renier Diaz de la Portilla’s dirty tactics could muddy up his bid for a judgeship.
A pair of identical complaints filed with the Florida Bar and the Judicial Qualifications Commission aim to extinguish Diaz de la Portilla’s aspirations should he succeed in unseating Miami-Dade Judge Fred Seraphin. If the bar or the commission finds probable cause against Diaz de la Portilla, then the Florida Supreme Court would decide his fate.
Filed by former Republican and former state legislator Juan-Carlos Planas, the complaints accuse Diaz de la Portilla of using a political action committee originally set up to support his older brother, Miami City Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla, as a proxy to smear Seraphin.
The committee, Proven Leadership for Miami-Dade County, last week mailed Miami-Dade voters two hit pieces against Seraphin, including a flyer accusing Seraphin of refusing to release his arrest record and publicizing the judge’s cellphone number for people to call him “and tell him to come clean.”
Planas, now a Democrat, alleges Diaz de la Portilla violated the Florida Bar’s rules of professional conduct and a judicial edict that requires candidates refrain from engaging in inappropriate political activity. In a phone interview, Planas said his goal is to make sure Diaz de la Portilla doesn’t get on the bench should he win, in addition to possible sanctions by the Florida Bar.
“The attacks on Judge Seraphin are disgusting,” Planas said. “Anybody who does that should never be a judge.”
Planas, who is a St. Thomas University adjunct law professor, doesn’t work for any judicial campaigns. But Planas did unseat Diaz de la Portilla as a state House representative in 2005, and he has battled the siblings in other campaigns as the attorney for competing candidates.
“I [ran against] Renier so I know what these folks are like,” Planas said. “These guys are shady.”
Diaz de la Portilla did not respond to Florida Bulldog voicemail and email messages seeking comment.
Seraphin said he is aware of the flyers but declined to comment about their content and Planas’s complaints. “I don’t care about these people who put [the flyers] out,” Seraphin said. “I am just happy to be a judge and I will fight to stay a judge.”
ROBBERY ARREST FUELS LEGAL CAREER
Last month, during a radio interview, Seraphin recounted an incident from his college days that flipped his mindset from wanting to be a lawyer for monetary gain to being an attorney representing minorities caught up in the criminal justice system.
During his senior year at the City College of New York’s Brooklyn campus, he was arrested and charged with an armed robbery he did not commit, Seraphin told the radio host. At the time, he was working two jobs and attending school. Seraphin was assigned a Legal Aid lawyer to defend him, who met with him while he was in a holding cell the night of his arrest, Seraphin recalled.
“When I appeared in front of the judge, he listened to the lawyer’s argument and allowed me to post bail,” Seraphin said. “The case went to a grand jury. And several months later, I got a letter that the case was dismissed. That set my course from wanting to be a lawyer making money to being a lawyer performing social services. That’s why I became a public defender.”
It’s a redemption tale Seraphin has recounted many times, including in 2001 shortly before then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him as the first Haitian-American judge in Miami-Dade history. He had been a Miami-Dade public defender for most of his legal career prior to his judgeship.
In an interview with the South Florida Business Journal at the time, Seraphin said he “was falsely accused and was the only light-skinned man in a highly suggestive line-up.”
Seraphin was reelected twice in 2004 and 2010 without opposition. In 2016, he squeaked out a less-than one-point victory over challenger Milena Abreu. This year, Seraphin is one of three Haitian-American judges who have drawn opponents with Hispanic surnames. In Miami-Dade, Hispanic judicial candidates often target white and black opponents, hoping their surnames will garner them more votes from the county’s predominantly Hispanic electorate, Planas said.
“They picked these judges because they are Haitian and they think they can win with their names,” said Planas, who is Cuban-American. “We should not be tolerating this type of politics in judicial elections.”
DIAZ DE LA PORTILLA OFTEN A LOSER
Diaz de la Portilla hasn’t won an election since 2008, when he was elected to the Miami-Dade School Board for a second time. In 2012, he lost a race for a state House seat to Manny Diaz Jr., who went on to become a state senator and was appointed Florida’s education commissioner by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year. In 2014, Diaz de la Portilla lost his first attempt at a judicial seat to then-attorney Veronica Diaz. She is still a Miami-Dade judge. And in 2020, Diaz de la Portilla lost a vicious campaign against incumbent Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins.
In that race, Diaz de la Portilla’s campaign ran a TV ad that attacked Higgins as being anti-police by showing images of looting rioters and her wearing a Che Guevara-style military beret.
In his complaint, Planas alleges Proven Leadership for Miami-Dade County supported Diaz de la Portilla’s 2020 run against Higgins. According to filings with the state Division of Elections, the committee was set up in 2018 to support his brother, Alex, who at the time was running for the open county commission seat that Higgins now occupies. She beat Alex, too.
On July 21 and 22, Proven Leadership had two postage expenditures totaling $20,211, its campaign reports show. Days later, the Seraphin hit pieces, which state both were paid by Proven Leadership, were delivered to Miami-Dade voters’ mailboxes. The flyer about the judge’s armed robbery arrest claims Seraphin “has refused to release his arrest record for the public to know about his criminal past.” It also states, “what is Seraphin hiding?” and “No one arrested for a violent crime is FIT to be a judge.”
The second flyer highlights a 2015 incident in Seraphin’s courtroom in which he refused to accommodate assistant public defender Marissa Altman-Glatzer’s request to take breaks during a DUI trial so she could pump her breasts to feed her baby. In bold capital letters, the flyer states, “It’s time to take misogynist Judge Fred Seraphin off the bench for good!” And the mailer also includes a purported quote from Altman-Glatzer in a Huffington Post article.
In a post on her Facebook page, Altman-Glatzer condemned the hit piece mentioning her. “By now you may have received that awful flyer from a judicial candidate that included my name in a way that somehow implies that I endorse him,” she wrote. “I was never consulted nor was I asked for permission to use my name. In fact, I have no issues with Fred Seraphin and encourage you to vote for him.”
Altman-Glazer also noted that she’s worked with Seraphin and Diaz de la Portilla on multiple occasions. “I can guarantee you that Judge Seraphin is more qualified for the position and the best candidate by a longshot,” she wrote. “Only a true misogynist would send that flyer without consulting me first.”
COMPLAINTS HAVE MERIT, SCHOLAR SAYS
In his complaints, Planas claims that Diaz de la Portilla cannot feign ignorance or that he has no control over Proven Leadership since, on paper, its main purpose is to support his sibling Alex. “Diaz de la Portilla can try to say he had no knowledge of the mail piece, but he would be lying,” Planas wrote. “The fact that it has been used primarily for his campaigns signifies that he has just as much ownership as anyone else with that committee.”
Robert Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University professor who teaches legal ethics, said the complaints have merit because judicial candidates are bound by a judicial canon requiring them to play nice or face punishment for dirty campaigning.
“Your court record is fair game,” Jarvis said. “But some things that are okay in other elections are not okay in judicial elections.”
Candidates are also required to attend information forums that teach them what they can and can’t do while campaigning, Jarvis said. “Ignorance of the law will not save this guy,” Jarvis said. “It is hard to believe that someone is doing something on behalf of a candidate that the candidate doesn’t know and didn’t have some discussion before they went out and did it.”
The Florida Supreme Court also comes down hard on judicial candidates that engage in gutter politics, Jarvis added. “If this guy has any chance to hold on to judgeship should he win, they would expect an early and full throated disavowal of what his brother’s committee is doing,” Jarvis said. “The Supreme Court has made it very clear that if you run a dirty judicial campaign, they will look very harshly at that. If [Diaz de la Portilla] does win, he is going to have a very short-lived judicial career.”