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 Heraldpublished 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."

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."

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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