MIAMI — Lawyers gawked from office windows last month when a BMW S.U.V. swiped a parked police cruiser in the parking lot of a courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, then slammed into a gate over and over again.
A judge was at the wheel.
As lawyers used smartphones to snap pictures of the morning spectacle, Judge Lynn D. Rosenthal became the third Broward County judge in six months to be arrested on charges of driving under the influence. A colleague, Judge Gisele Pollack, had been suspended five days earlier after getting arrested on a D.U.I. charge while already on leave for taking the bench intoxicated — twice.
Even for South Florida, where absurd news events are routine and the sheriff went to prison for corruption, the spate of judicial scandals has raised serious questions about whether the arrests in Broward are a bizarre coincidence or underscore a larger systemic problem. In a county where the judiciary is known for old-school nepotism and cronyism, and judges have been caught smoking marijuana in a park and found drunk and partly naked in a hotel hallway, some lawyers find themselves wondering: At what point do isolated instances of misconduct point to something bigger?
On Wednesday, WPLG, an ABC affiliate, citing anonymous sources, reported that a Broward family court judge was under federal investigation on suspicion of allowing a now-convicted Ponzi schemer to influence a case.
And this month, a former judge in Broward was disbarred for exchanging 949 phone calls and 471 text messages with the prosecutor during a death penalty case. Yet another judge was ordered removed in April after being accused of cheating clients and a co-counsel in the settlement of a civil suit she handled as a private lawyer a decade ago.
As it turns out, bad behavior by judges has become distressingly common across Florida in recent months. Judge John C. Murphy in Brevard County is on leave after he was caught on video this month threatening a public defender, who later accused the judge of punching him in the head. In the Keys, a judge who was replaced on the bench after dozing off told a local news reporter that Ambien made him hallucinate about “ ‘Fantasia’ and the dancing brooms.” Another stepped down because a blogger exposed a sexually explicit profile the judge had posted on a gay dating site.
But Broward — a heavily Democratic county of 1.8 million people with many judges who are the children, spouses, siblings and fraternity brothers of other judges and some of the region’s most powerful people — seems to be ground zero for allegations of judicial misconduct. The system’s critics say that is because Broward has a highly politicized and clannish culture that is known for protecting its own, which has led some in the judiciary to feel invincible, even as they preside over a county court system that produces the state’s highest exoneration rate.
“I do think it belies an underlying systemic problem in Broward County,” said Howard Finkelstein, Broward’s elected public defender. “I don’t think this stunningly embarrassing fact of having all these charges pending at the same time is indicative of a judiciary with substance abuse problems, but I do think it is a manifestation of the greater problem of a circle-the-wagons mentality.”
Records posted online by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the independent agency that investigates misconduct by state judges in Florida’s 67 counties, show that 17 percent of the 62 formal disciplinary cases filed against sitting judges since 2001 have been in Broward.
Those figures do not include two judges who were recently arrested or those who resigned before a case was made public, such as Judge Lawrence L. Korda, who, in 2007, after presiding over parts of the Anna Nicole Smith case, was caught smoking marijuana in a park. (Not to be confused with Larry S. Seidlin, the Broward judge who sobbed on the bench during a nationally televised ruling on where the reality TV star should be buried.)
Many judges accused of wrongdoing remain on the bench, such as the family court judge who took in a foster child who had appeared in his court, only for the teenager to accuse the judge years later of molesting him.
“Tell me one other courthouse that at any time ever had three judges pending criminal charges, a fourth judge disbarred by the Supreme Court and another judge awaiting removal,” Mr. Finkelstein said. “And that doesn’t include the naked judge!”
In 2001, a Broward County judge was arrested on charges of public intoxication after being found drunk and naked from the waist down at a resort that was hosting a state judicial conference. Mr. Finkelstein has been there: A recovering addict, he, too, was once arrested, after using cocaine and crashing into a police car.
William J. Gelin, a defense lawyer in Broward who runs a blog, Jaablaw.com, that chronicles courthouse antics and posted a photo of Judge Rosenthal’s arrest, noted that the Judicial Qualifications Commission only reveals cases that result in misconduct charges. Most complaints against judges remain secret, which he said adds to the perception that judges feel omnipotent.
“It’s time to shine a light on these individuals and their performance, as the founding fathers intended,” Mr. Gelin said.
Michael L. Schneider, executive director and general counsel of the commission, acknowledged that the recent run of Broward judges being arrested is unusual, but that the agency dealt with cases “one at a time” and not systemically.
“The commission isn’t a punishment group,” he said. “It’s designed to evaluate fitness of somebody to be a judge.”
Broward’s chief judge, Peter M. Weinstein, said the rash of arrests was an “anomaly” that did not reflect the hard work judges do every day at the courthouse.
“It’s a big court system — we have 103 people making decisions every single day,” Judge Weinstein said. “Over all, we have excellent judges, and nobody ever reads or hears anything about them.”
A lawyer for Judge Rosenthal, Brian Y. Silber, declined to comment.
Two of the arrested judges refused a Breathalyzer test, but the test conducted on Judge Rosenthal showed that she had not been drinking. She told the police that she had taken Ambien the night before, but after failing a field sobriety test, she refused to take urine or blood tests, according to the police report. The police, suspecting that she was impaired by drugs, charged her with D.U.I.
Judge Pollack was suspended without pay, despite a request from her lawyer, J. David Bogenschutz, that her alcoholism be considered a disability. She has sought treatment and hopes to return to the bench, Mr. Bogenschutz said.
“Where a judge has the same problem 5,000 other people have, it makes news,” he said. “They are not supposed to have human feelings and human failings.”
Mr. Bogenschutz, who has represented dozens of Florida judges, recently married one of his clients. His wife, Ana Gardiner, is the former Broward judge who was disbarred by the Florida Supreme Court this month for lying about an “emotional relationship” with a prosecutor during a 2007 case. (The defendant was granted a new trial and is now serving a life sentence instead of being on death row, as Ms. Gardiner had ruled.)
“You shouldn’t get special treatment because you’re a judge, and you shouldn’t be treated more harshly if you are a judge,” said Marc Shiner, who represents Judge Cynthia G. Imperato, who was arrested in November for driving under the influence. “They are trying to make an example out of her.”
Joe Murphy’s retirement is here, and all are urged to stop by Room 418 at noon on Friday, June 27th, to say goodbye. Cake and coffee will be served. For all those courthouse types who can handle their liquor, another party starts later in the day at 5:30 PM, over at Maguires Hill 16.
It’s always sad when a respected jurist ages out. As with Stan Kaplan’s retirement, this one feels like the end of an era.
Lawyers and litigants could count on a warm welcome in Room 418, no matter the judge’s particular stress level that day. Joe always accommodated before having the final say. Donning a robe didn’t wipe out his memories of working as an ASA or harried defense lawyer, nor could it eclipse the lessons learned as a combat wounded veteran. Certain problems in life are important, and others are speed bumps that need to be quickly remedied so everyone can move on. And nobody could spot the difference better than Joe.
So don’t forget to stop by. You’ll be greeted with the same big smile that welcomed lawyers with thirty years experience, and those with thirty days since passing the Bar exam. Wisdom never took a backseat in Room 418, and there was always a lesson to be learned for those perceptive enough to find it. The “People’s Court” will never be the same …
McLawrence/Rosenthal endorsements – FOP and Lori Parrish have endorsed Jahra McLawrence, while the PBA gave its support to Lynn Feig-Rosenthalbefore the DUI arrest, and without interviewing McLawrence first …
Don’t take my wife, please… – David Bogenschutz has filed motions to push back the effective date of Gardiner’s disbarment, in order to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision. The filings are seen here. Thanks to hohoho for the tip. We’ll be sure to get those motions posted online soon.
Fun with judicial apps – which of the following individuals does not appear on Gardiner’s 1998 judicial application, recommending a ten year lawyer with one jury trial for the circuit court of Broward County?
1.) Dale Ross; 2.) Howard Zeidwig; 3.) Patty Cocalis; 4.) Charlie Greene; 5.) Ray Ferrero, Jr.; 6.) Lynn Futch; 7.) Hugh Maloney; 8.) Ed Benton; 9.) Andrew Leinoff; 10.) David Bogenschutz; 11.) Alfred E. Neuman.
According to Key West Citizen, Slaton has flatly denied a rumor in the legal community that he suffers from a drinking problem. That article is found here.
Whatever his health issues may be, Slaton certainly seems like a colorful character, who may want to compare notes with Lynn Feig-Rosenthal on her own recent Ambien mishap. Who knows, they could prepare a joint presentation for judicial college regarding the woes of sleep aides, assuming both are reelected …
Brannon v. Finkelstein update – we’re told the 11th Circuit appeals court has relieved Howard Finkelstein of any personal liability in the lawsuit filed by Michael Brannon, while preserving a jury question as to whether or not Brannon was punished because of his Cheryl Aleman JQC testimony, or cut back because of budget issues and alleged hostile actions against the Public Defender. Does a trial loom? Stay tuned …
Will the Sun Sentinel endorse McLawrence? – that question would have been easy to answer before Lynn Feig-Rosenthal crashed her car, got arrested, refused drug testing, played games with her mug shot, refused to comment on whether the property receipt MEDS could have contributed to her erratic behavior, and failed to assure the community she’s ok to decide peoples’ fates while the DUI accusation is pending by answering good questions like the ones posed by the Sentinel Tuesday. But now that a character issue has helped define the race for circuit court Group 8, the normally incumbent-loving Sentinel may be set to break with tradition and endorse the underdog. Don’t believe it? Check out Tuesday’s article here, following the editorial board’s meet and greet with the candidates, and featuring the following quote by Jahra McLawrence:
“(W)hatever happened, she was about to take the bench, and she was about to rule on other people’s lives in that condition.“
Rumor has it McLawrence may have already picked up some other key endorsements, so stay tuned …
And the Judicial MVP Award goes too … senior judge Fred Berman, for carrying two county court criminal divisions, and getting ready to pick up a third, on, get this, a part-time basis. And that’s not all. He’s whittled down Mary Robinson’s division to a few hundred cases, to the point we’re told Court Administration is getting ready to eliminate Division MM once and for all.
Quite a feat, but hardly a surprise to anyone familiar with Peter Weinstein’s woefully inefficient county criminal courts. While there are many hard working and ambitious judges serving in the people’s court, everyone knows there are others who are anything but. It’s just a shame a veteran judge had to get sick for Berman to prove the point beyond a doubt. And if Weinstein would name a new Chief for county criminal to ensure an evenly distributed and efficiently managed workload, maybe he could withdraw this request for SIX new $134,000 a year county judges for Fiscal Year 2014/2015. They’re your tax dollars, after all …
Speaking of Mary – is she returning soon? That was the question lodged with Meredith Brooks, communication specialist for the 17th Circuit. She’s promised to ask Weinstein, who’s out of town for a few days. Wait and see …
Thanks, Fred! – Fred Horowitz hasn’t begged off his jury room responsibilities, thus far appearing every day this week as scheduled. No one can accuse him of aiding a fellow judge’s reelection campaign, that’s for sure. He’s in there again Wednesday, with Jeff Levenson on deck for next week. Well done!
It’s been a long time since the Florida Bar or Broward Bar Association (BCBA) issued a judicial poll for the 17th Circuit. In fact, the only ones found online are this one from 2002 by the Bar, andthis one from 2008 by BCBA. Rumor has it judges don’t like being rated, which is reason enough for JAABLOG to pick up the ball and run.
So here’s the deal. Judges have been broken up by division assignments, and rank (county or circuit). Larger divisions, like criminal, are subdivided by floor, so as not to overwhelm the voting public. Groups of judges will go out every so often for rating, again so as not to overload those who care to share an opinion. Votes will be cast in the form of your comments, and preserved online for anyone in the future searching for a Broward judicial poll or survey.
Ours is a lot less scientific than theirs, but much more than checking a box. As previously stated, it’s just your comments, which means you can be as detailed as desired. Topic areas to consider are Intelligence Level, Integrity/Ethics, Demeanor & Temperament, Work Ethic, Efficiency & Office Management, and for circuit judges, Qualifications For Chief Judge. Check out the BCBA’s 2008 categories for a more exhaustive list of criteria, or make up your own. Anything you have to add is relevant, and the public has a right to know.
Father, musician, and lawyer Michael Holden passed away last night. He had suffered a massive coronary, and passed peacefully in Hospice. Scott Hecker, Michael’s friend since high school, will be providing funeral information shortly.
Thoughts and prayers …
MEMORIAL SERVICE– Friday, June 20th at 4:00 PM. Sea Lake Ranches North Condominium, 5200 N. Ocean Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33308. 954-782-5151.
Bob Norman caught up with Lynn Feig-Rosenthal this week, but she isn’t answering his questions about the property receipt either. According to the report, after spotting the camera, Feig-Rosenthal ditched into the bathroom for six minutes, only to emerge in silence, ignoring the question “What drugs did you have in your purse“.
Channel 10 viewers aren’t the only disappointed ones. Feig-Rosenthal’s campaign manager also failed to impress upon his candidate the importance of clearing the air. As promised, he called back Thursday evening, stating his client was aware of the questions, but would not answer.
Another sad day for Broward County …
Coming Soon – JAABLOG fills in the blanks: 1.) Judge, isn’t it true you had _______ on you when you were booked?; 2.) The problem in 4900 is _________ …