Judging the Judges

A bill in the Florida Senate proposes that unofficial courtwatchers like Eleanor Mendlein become official court critics

As a self-appointed court-watcher in Broward County, Eleanor Mendlein has spent the last seven years observing an endless procession of divorces and custody battles. She's scribbled hundreds of pages of notes and gathered thousands of pages of transcripts, which she keeps in boxes at her daughter's house in Plantation.

This mountain of paperwork points to a system that doesn't work for children, says Mendlein. "There are many kids in the system today who are being victimized by the people who are being paid to protect them," she says. "Judges have to learn to be more objective than they are."

And it wouldn't hurt if they dressed the part.

Somebody's watching: court observers Eleanor Mendlein (left) and Marion Connolly
Sherri Cohen
Somebody's watching: court observers Eleanor Mendlein (left) and Marion Connolly

"I think dignity needs to be brought back into the courtroom," Mendlein says. "Since family court opened, they discontinued wearing robes. Some of the men have big stomachs, and their shirt buttons come open and their stomachs come out, and how do you tell someone that?"

After seven years of sitting through proceedings, Mendlein, age 89, has come to the conclusion that special interests rule in family court. She has seen cases drag on for years, then suddenly end when money for lawyers and court-appointed specialists runs dry. She has seen spouses -- primarily women -- lose custody of their children because they don't have the funds to fight.

Her vigil began in 1990, when her daughter, Mary, was fighting for custody of her child after a divorce. Mendlein's grandchild was ordered by the court to undergo counseling with a husband-and-wife team of psychologists. While the case was under way, The Miami Herald published a story claiming that the couple had lied about their educational backgrounds; neither had a doctorate. Though the judge eventually barred the pair from family court and Mary got custody of her child, the experience forever colored Mendlein's opinion of the system.

If a proposed bill being kicked around in the state senate comes to fruition, there could be many more court watchers like her. The bill would dedicate taxpayer dollars to training and overseeing court watchers, who would report on the types of inequity Mendlein says are often perpetrated. The bill would also venerate her in a way, because she believes many judges do not respect what she is doing.

"They have offered resistance to us from time to time," she says. "We carry a piece of paper from the [Florida] Supreme Court that says they legally can't keep us out."

Unfortunately she's misplaced that paper. Mendlein is, as she acknowledges, "getting older by the minute," and her collection of files keeps growing, making it harder these days to put her hands on things.

But she's nothing if not dogged.

Mendlein is a mother of two and a grandmother of two. A native of Cleveland, she's been an activist all her life. "I can remember as a child they had inner-city playgrounds not far from my house," she recalls. "My family was always interested in community things, so from the time I was 13 or 14 I would work as a volunteer on the playgrounds."

Her phone rings as often as a dozen times a day. Many of the calls come from parents who feel they've been treated unfairly in family court and have heard about Mendlein. One recent caller was Christy Coolidge, who was battling over visitation rights of her daughter after divorcing a Fort Lauderdale businessman. Coolidge is convinced the judge in the case was biased in favor of her ex-husband because both traveled in the same social circuit.

"My ex had tremendous amounts of money and power in Fort Lauderdale because he was in business for 25 years," she says. "The judge's family had been in business for a long time, and you could see the connections."

Because her ex-husband was neither the girl's biological nor adoptive father, Coolidge did not believe he was entitled to visitation rights. She gave in, however, to avoid a protracted legal fight.

When health problems, such as a recent spate of nosebleeds, keep Mendlein home, she relies on others to sit in on cases. As many as five or six court watchers have worked simultaneously in the past, but at the moment, the volunteer pool consists primarily of Marion Connolly, a retired schoolteacher who has been following family court since its inception in Broward County in 1992. In the late '80s, Connolly was a member of the Broward Coalition For Judicial Awareness, which sought to uncover gender bias in the legal and judicial system.

In 1991 Connolly wrote a letter to The Miami Herald complaining that Broward County judges weren't doing enough to establish a family court system. Mendlein saw the letter, liked Connolly's spirit, and looked her up.

"I called her, and the person who answered the phone told me Marion Connolly had died that morning," Mendlein recalls. Turns out, of course, she had the wrong Marion Connolly.

Other volunteers come and go, but Connolly has stuck to the often wearisome routine of court-watching. She recalls one case that went on for several years in which she spent 14 consecutive days, and a few nights, sitting in on the proceedings. She hasn't always been welcomed, but judges get the message that someone other than the interested parties is paying attention. "They know somebody is there trying to size up the situation," she says. "Somebody is watching the judge in terms of actions and reactions to both parties."

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