By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Brown is the color of choice for R.O. Dale Ross. The spines of his law books are leathery tan, the vinyl on his chairs is cardboard-box brown, and his wooden table is the hue of watery chewing tobacco. Even the Lady Justice on the wall clock in the chief judge´s eighth-floor courthouse office is a dark, bronzy brown. Brown, brown, and mo re brown as in the color of the storm that´s been whirling around the Broward County Courthouse, where Ross is the judge over all the judges. It´s the county known to the rest of the world as a place where votes don´t get counted right, where a judge cries on camera over a dead B-list bimbo, and where another judge gets busted smoking dope in a park near children playing.
If you didn´t already know that at least one judge in the state´s 17th Judicial Circuit was getting high, these days you´d be liable to suspect it. And it´s not just the judges who are crying. Now, tears of shame are shed by anyone who´s been paying attention long enough to look past the waterfront jailhouse, where the sheriff is under federal investigation, and gaze upon the county´s courts, where more than a handful of the men and women in robes have been acting more backward than horses´ asses.
¨People are talking about this all over the state,¨ Public Defender Howard Finkelstein says. ¨It´s throwing the institution of the judiciary into disrepute whether it´s deserved or not.¨
Yet somehow, through it all, Ross´ leadership has survived.
Ross is the longest-serving chief judge in Florida history. He´s ridden out countless scandals, including allegations by a lawyer that Ross sexually abused her in 1996, a news account that Ross lied about his birthplace, rumors that he abused steroids, and appellate rulings reversing his decisions and calling him pro-prosecution.
Ross calls these kinds of problems ¨isolated incidents¨ and vowed recently to outlive them as chief judge.
¨In light of all the controversy, I think it´s quite necessary that I stay,¨ he said May 16.
On May 17, Ross attended an annual state-of-the-court meeting at the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach, which has jurisdiction over Broward, Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River, and Okeechobee counties.
On May 18, an appellate court judge contacted defense attorney Bill Gelin whose blog, Ross said, was undermining the judiciary to offer help for a justice system in distress, according to Gelin. Why?
¨I think they realized Dale Ross was bad for the judge business,¨ Gelin says.
On Tuesday, May 22, Dale Ross announced that he would resign as chief judge although he intends to stay on until September 4, when he´ll be replaced by the winner of a planned July 3 special election.
¨I don´t think he wants to step down,¨ says Chris Stotz, spokesman for the 17th Judicial Circuit.
¨After much reflection and soul searching, maybe it´s time to be a real judge again,¨ Ross said in a memo sent to fellow judges and court staff.
Ross will eventually step down, he continued in the memo, because the past couple of years ¨have been particularly difficult for me and my family¨ and because he plans to have double hip-replacement surgery in July, but ¨primarily because of my love for our circuit...
¨Our circuit has accomplished a number of firsts´ and has been very aggressive and pro-active in serving the people of the State of Florida.¨
Ross, 59, has been on the bench since 1981. He´s been chief judge since 1990, a tenure that has had many critics calling for term limits. He´s five-foot-eight, with salt-and-pepper hair that he keeps closely cropped. He´s trim and muscular, still lifting weights at the downtown YMCA most days. He´s fit, no doubt, but Ross may not be the most modern jurist. He refuses to put a computer in his office. One of the first times he used a cell phone was during the summer of 2004, when a round of hurricanes battered South Florida into a state of emergency and closed his courthouse for stretches at a time. Ross´ role as chief entails mostly administrative duties such as assigning courtrooms, offices, and parking spots, but the chief judge also establishes local rules regarding such things as the cost of the defense of the indigent, and he sets the court´s calendar, schedules judges for weekend work, and appoints temporary judges. He also hires and oversees senior administrative staff members such as the court administrator and the attorney for the circuit, both highly paid positions. More significant, he can, at his discretion, put any of the 90 or so other judges in the circuit on administrative leave.
All of that gives a chief judge power. He also wields influence, as when the governor or the Judicial Nominating Commission consults him about appointments to the bench and through his control of the circuit´s budget.