Court Jesters

Dale Ross steps down as Broward County´s chief judge, but will anything really change?

Ross has long operated without much apparent oversight himself, although some hope that´s about to change. The question, though, is whether the escapades and mores of his circuit will change as well.

Meantime, there is another concern. Ross, as chief judge, did not have a full docket. That the unreformed Ross would return to hearing cases and presiding over trials full-time is a new worry for some Broward lawyers.

Christopher Smith

A cascade of judges during Ross´ tenure in the top seat have committed sins worse than Judge Larry Seidlin´s sobbing on live television during the custody battle over Anna Nicole Smith´s body, even as Seidlin was angling to get his own TV show.

Following are some of the highlights.

According to police reports, in 2001, Judge Joyce A. Julian got drunk at an annual judicial conference at the Amelia Island Ritz Carlton, stripped from the waist down, and wandered around the hotel´s hallways until she passed out. The state´s Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) investigated Julian´s actions, but before it could take any action, Julian lost her bid for reelection a first in Broward County. A criminal disorderly intoxication charge against Julian was dropped after she entered a 30-day alcohol-rehab program.

In 2004, Judge Cheryl Alemán, a self-described conservative Christian, refused to let Jean Felix, a black man dying of AIDS, out of jail even though Broward County State Attorney Michael Satz did not oppose the man´s release. Ross took no action then. Two weeks later, however, Ross came to his senses, overruled Alemán, and sent Felix home.

Felix died of an AIDS-related illness last year. Alemán´s actions in his case are now part of a multicount case the JQC brought against her after complaints about her behavior mounted. In its charging documents, the JQC said Alemán had engaged in ¨a pattern of arrogant, discourteous, and impatient conduct.¨ In her response, Alemán said the commission didn´t have the standing to discipline her.

And then there was the ¨NHI¨ flap. It was just this April that Judge Charles Greene, a white man then overseeing the county´s criminal courts, told a couple of attorneys that the only reason he could see that a jury acquitted one black man of a charge that he tried to kill another black man was that jurors didn´t care about anyone in a case with ¨no humans involved.¨

Ross took no action against Greene. Instead, Greene asked to be transferred to the civil division of county courts, a request that Ross granted. On the bright side, no one´s freedom is at stake on the civil side; the only thing in jeopardy there is property.

A few days after Greene resigned from his role in the criminal courts, Ross held a news conference in his office, where the sheer brown dullness belies the Crayola colorfulness of the goings-on in the rest of the building. There, Ross announced that he´d asked a member of Florida´s Commission on Human Relations to help solve problems his courts seem to have with diversity.

The announcement marked the second time in as many years that Ross has been compelled to seek outside help to address judgmental, unjudge-like conduct. Last summer, he hired a consulting firm to give his judges sensitivity training after Judge Leonard Feiner complained that the mostly black, Haitian janitors weren´t cleaning the courthouse well enough, saying, ¨They may live in... in hovels, where they... where they live, but they don´t have to leave places they work looking like a dump.¨ The remark was all the sweeter coming from a jurist who often eschews his robe and calls cases with his shirt unbuttoned far enough to reveal thick, black chest hair and a gold necklace.

About the same time that Feiner was sharing his benighted views, Judge Lee Seidman was routinely asking defendants in traffic court whether they were illegal aliens. A few months before that, Larry Korda, the dope-smoking judge, had a woman come before him seeking a restraining order against her abusive husband. Korda told her to speak English. ¨She doesn´t need any translation,¨ he said. ¨She has been here 19 years. She´s watched Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? for 15.¨

Ross himself has not avoided such missteps, even after he got trained in sensitivity. When a black defendant appeared before him, charged with violating a noise ordinance, Ross wanted to know if the man had been listening to ¨that rap music.¨ Ross did, however, dismiss the charge. Explaining his remarks, Ross said, ¨For the life of me, [I] didn´t know why this guy was arrested. I thought maybe the police were busting this guy´s back. And I said, Don´t tell me it was because he was playing that rap music´... And it turns out that was the case.¨

Whether Ross has governed himself may be debatable, but he clearly has declined to exercise his authority over other Broward judges. Even when those judges have themselves become criminal defendants, Ross has failed to put them on administrative leave. Instead, reassigning them to the civil division is the most he´s done. Yet there´s another standard at play when Ross has the fate of people in his hands and they don´t happen to be judges. Ross beats the gavel harder on folks accused of violating probation. And the Fourth District Court of Appeal has had something to say about that, reversing Ross numerous times in such cases on the grounds that he abuses his discretion. According to the appellate court, Ross has been particularly heartless in a few instances.

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