Judging the Judges

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

Is it worth the effort? Some legal experts think so. "The more the public knows and the more the participants in the court system are aware that the public is looking at the system, the more sensitivity, attention to detail, and precision will be used in the process," says Michael J. Dale, a Nova Southeastern University law professor specializing in family law.

Court watchers today, however, don't have much power. Their notes aren't published, and they don't report to figures of authority. They may, however, exercise a subtle influence over courthouse players and employees. Dale Ross, chief judge of the Broward County Court, is skeptical of the court watchers he's seen interact with plaintiffs and defendants in his courtroom. "I am not sure exactly what the agendas are," he says. "Usually in the courtroom they are trying to influence the court in some fashion or manner. They almost always take sides."

And they don't always understand the role of a judge, he adds. Justice isn't always cordial. "Sometimes what appears to be an intemperate demeanor is purposefully done," Ross explains. "Sometimes you have a defendant who needs a scolding; that is what you are there to do."

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

While it's true that neither Mendlein nor Connolly has any legal background, the proposed legislation would provide training in judicial proceedings, ethics, courtroom protocol, and record keeping. Senate Bill 1134 proposes creating a statewide program in which court watchers would be organized into a nonprofit organization governed by a board of directors, including the state attorney general, the president of the senate, the speaker of the house, the chief justice of the state supreme court, and the governor. The bill provides an unspecified amount of funding to hire employees who would oversee and train volunteers. The volunteers would observe court proceedings, then fill out standard forms that would serve as the basis of an annual report delivered to the governor and other state officials tracking complaints, resolutions, and recommended changes to legislation.

The bill was introduced earlier this month by State Sen. Daryl Jones (D-Miami), who did not return phone calls for this story. A similar bill was introduced in the Florida House of Representatives in 1999 by Rep. Luis Rojas (R-Hialeah) but died in committee. Surprisingly Rojas admitted he didn't know much about the bill, saying he floated it on behalf of a constituent who "felt there were some abuses in the court and that this kind of program was necessary." He added, however, that he does not know what the abuses were.

The senate bill offers a sweeping program with lofty goals. But it stands little chance of being enacted this session, according to State Sen. Skip Campbell (D-Tamarac). Campbell is on the senate's judiciary committee, which is the bill's next stop. "It's something to talk about," Campbell said of the proposal, "but there is not a hell of a lot of money for something like this right now."

Which suits Mendlein just fine. She thinks the bill is too broad as written, too full of bureaucratese. She'd rather see a bill that allows people who are vitally interested in the lives of children to sit in on family court. That would be a good way to start, she says.

"I've read that bill four times. It is like all things written as bills. There is a lot of superfluous stuff in there. They don't seem to put a focus on what is needed, and what is needed is to stop victimizing those children."


Read Senate Bill 1134


Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address: bob.whitby@newtimesbpb.com

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