Florida’s chief justice and the hunt for goof-off judges

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

Florida’s chief justice has ordered the state’s 20 chief judges to monitor the work of each judge in their circuit looking for goof-offs – a move that’s unnerved judges in South Florida and elsewhere.

In the same Dec. 1 administrative order, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga directed each chief judge to “separately communicate” with each trial court judge in their circuit “the importance of a professional work ethic and accountability to the judiciary as a full-time commitment.”

“Neglect of duty” offenses “shall be reported by the chief judge to the chief justice of this court,” Labarga’s order says.

Labarga declined an interview request to discuss what prompted the order.

But Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said, “The Chief Justice simply wants to make sure that the chief judges and the judges they supervise understand that there are consequences for violations of the public trust. We certainly realize that most of our judges honor their duties, but we feel it is a healthy thing to remind everyone of their ethical obligations.”

Broward, where judicial misbehavior has made national headlines and County Court Judge Gisele Pollack and Circuit Judge Laura Marie Watson are defending ethics charges brought against them by the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), is among a number of circuits thought to have motivated Labarga’s order.

“The Supreme Court has to have a statewide perspective,” said Waters. “The people in the 18th Circuit (Brevard and Seminole counties) are convinced that the order is aimed at them.” Three judges from the 18th Circuit have disciplinary cases pending before the JQC.

Still, over the years Broward has had its fair share of concern about judges allegedly shirking their duty.

Larry Seidlin, the weepy probate judge who gained notoriety presiding over the high-profile Anna Nicole Smith case, had a reputation for paying more attention to his backhand than his caseload before his 2007 retirement. And this fall’s election included allegations that defeated incumbent Judge Stephen Feren was frequently absent from the courthouse.

Chief judges are elected to two-year terms by their fellow judges and serve as the administrative officer in their circuit, with supervisory authority over all judges and court personnel.

ENSURING ACCOUNTABILITY

The new administrative order obliges chiefs to ensure accountability by the judges they oversee.

“Until this order came out, the chief judge, at least in Broward, was largely a ceremonial title where you went to rubber chicken lunches and you cut ribbons at the courthouse,” said Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. “I was told by at least four chief judges that whether a judge was intoxicated on the bench or was violating people’s rights by not following the law they had no authority to do anything…This order, as I read it, puts it clearly on the chief judges.”

Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein has the new, laborious chore of monitoring his colleagues’ work in the 17th Judicial Circuit. How will he do it?

“That’s an excellent question when you have 90 judges,” he said. “It’s hard to quantify a judge’s work.”

Weinstein said he hoped to get more specific direction from Labarga at the quarterly chief judges’ meeting at the Supreme Court today, Dec. 12.

“This will be discussed, and if it isn’t I will talk with Chief Justice Labarga personally to ask him, ‘What is it you actually want us to do?’” said Weinstein.

JAABBLOG, a courthouse blog written by attorney William Gelin, reported Tuesday that the chief justice’s administrative order may have been a response to a potential investigation of Broward’s judiciary by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The blog said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, confirmed that public hearings had been considered, but were obviated by Labarga’s order.

Simmons did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Waters, the high court’s spokesman, was asked whether Labarga was aware of the Senate’s concerns, and whether that prompted his order.

“We of course always have a dialogue going on with the Legislature and of course are open to whatever concerns they have,” said Waters, who declined further comment.

Plans for a new ‘marijuana court’ advance in Broward; addressing racial disparity in arrests

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org  Law and Marijuana

Since the birth of drug court in South Florida nearly 25 years ago, so-called problem-solving courts have proliferated in courthouses across the country.

Now a new idea that would take judicial specialization a step further could debut soon in Broward after its tentative approval Friday by Broward State Attorney Mike Satz.

“Our office is in favor of the idea,” said state attorney’s spokesman Ron Ishoy.

The idea is to establish a marijuana court where everyone arrested on misdemeanor pot possession charges would be funneled and offered treatment.

“Defendants prepared to go through a treatment program and six months worth of testing, supervision and staying clean would have the charges against them dismissed,” said Broward County Court Judge Gisele Pollack, head of the misdemeanor drug court.

Under Florida law, possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana is a misdemeanor that’s punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Offenders can also lose their driver’s license for two years.

Marijuana court could largely decriminalize possession if widely used in Broward.

“The benefit is to make things uniform and to make sure all defendants are offered the same opportunity so you are not going to be victimized by a judge who has an attitude about marijuana or you,” said Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, who also supports the proposal.

DETAILS TO BE WORKED OUT

Details about how the new court will operate remain to be worked out. Pollack, who conceived of marijuana court and would be its presiding judge, said planning meetings are to be held beginning in two weeks with prosecutors, public defenders and judges, including Chief Judge Peter Weinstein.

Broward County Judge Gisele Pollack

Broward County Judge Gisele Pollack

In addition to offering a second chance to defendants who participate, marijuana court will offers savings to the justice system, said Pollack. For example, she noted a 2010 Florida State University study prepared for the Broward Sheriff’s Office determined that the county’s misdemeanor drug court saved BSO about $125 million in corrections costs over five years.

More importantly, marijuana court will provide a means of ameliorating significant racial disparities in the system.

A recent study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that African-Americans in Broward, and across the U.S., were 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested on marijuana possession charges in 2010. Specifically, nearly 60 percent of the 6,061 people arrested in Broward on that charge were black.

Pollack, who’d been thinking about trying to consolidate all pot possession cases for a while, put the idea back on the front burner after the study’s release last month.

“The ACLU report confirmed what I’ve been saying all along because I’ve seen more blacks than whites come to court,” said Pollack.

The judge described today’s typical defendant as a young black male, 18 to 25, caught with a joint or two. Often he will face an accompanying misdemeanor charge for petty theft, prostitution, resisting arrest without violence, trespassing or disorderly intoxication.

Offenders don’t go directly to jail. Police give them a notice to appear in court.

Defendants charged with marijuana possession, and possibly other offenses, are now randomly assigned to any judge in the criminal division of county court, depending on the police agency that arrested them.

Individuals whose cases are not initially assigned to Pollack’s misdemeanor drug court, where there is an existing treatment program, must decide whether they want to have their case transferred there.

LAW CHANGED

A change in the law last session allows individuals with a prior cannabis charge to participate. The only barrier to participation in the misdemeanor program now is a prior felony conviction, but participation can still be ordered as a special condition if they are on probation.

Another change allows the courts to dismiss not only the marijuana charge, but accompanying nonviolent misdemeanor charges if there is a substance abuse issue involved.

Today, county judges have different standards as to when defendants are allowed to go to drug court and enter the program. They may not explain it clearly or allow objecting prosecutors to nix it for some.

The lingering concerns of the State Attorney’s Office are about the volume of cases that will pass through the court and speedy trial requirements, according to Executive Chief Assistant Public Defender Catherine Keuthan.

Pollack said she has agreed to handle the flow of cases.  “I am opening my court to more cases,” she said. To address the speedy trial issue, which requires trials within 90 days of arrest, defendants would have to sign a waiver to enter the program, she said.

The recent change in the law that allows for the dismissal of other nonviolent misdemeanors tied to substance abuse provides another opportunity for court specialization.

Pollack is already thinking about the establishment of a Broward “prostitution court” where defendants there could also have charges dismissed if they complete the treatment program.

Typically, prostitutes are diagnosed with substance abuse, mental health and other issues, Pollack said.

“The legislature has deemed that prostitution inherently involves a substance abuse issue,” she said. “I’m talking to a judge about such a court now.”

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