There Go Da Judge

Driving Blind

It was just before halftime on Super Bowl Sunday when a passing car apparently decided to try to climb up the back of My Warhaftig's new Mercedes E350. Warhaftig and her husband were at a football party in Fort Lauderdale's upscale Sunrise Intracoastal community, where neighbors had set up a Jumbotron video screen in the street to watch the game. She had parked her car around the corner on NE 25th Way at the edge of a friend's lawn.

One of the residents came looking for Warhaftig with alarming news: "Someone just smashed into your car and took off."

The collision left a mess on the back end of the Mercedes, with the bumper hanging loose, the left taillight smashed, and the exhaust pipe driven under the body. By the time Warhaftig and her husband, Allan, got there, though, the fleeing driver had returned. She was sitting in her BMW in a driveway next to the damaged Mercedes. It was Judge Ana Gardiner, chief judge of the criminal division of the Broward County Circuit Court.

Gardiner has been a sometimes-controversial figure in the Sixth Street courthouse. Most recently, she has led an effort to stampede the Broward County Commission to cough up funds for a new courthouse, claiming, among other things, that there weren't enough courtrooms to keep the system afloat. (Bill Gelin, a well-known courthouse blogger and lawyer, surveyed the situation and found that, on a typical Thursday afternoon, there were 23 empty courtrooms in the building.) She's a tough, outspoken adjudicator whose name is sometimes floated as a possible Broward County chief judge candidate.

No word on what Gardiner had to say on Super Bowl Sunday, though. She declined to step out of her car when police arrived. She didn't explain why she had sped away (apparently she did a loop through the neighborhood before coming to her senses and returning to the scene) or how she had come to collide with Warhaftig's car. There was no apology for the Warhaftigs.

When police arrived — summoned by a resident who had heard the crash and seen Gardiner subsequently "shooting down the street" — a group of people gathered around the damaged car. Among them were prominent Fort Lauderdale lawyer Howard Friedman, who lives on 25th Way, and another lawyer, who was watching the game at Friedman's house. According to the Warhaftigs, Friedman recognized Gardiner, telling neighbors, "I know what this is about."

Gardiner was probably checking up on "an ex-boyfriend" (the lawyer who was visiting Friedman's house), he alleged to neighbors. When someone stepped out of the house, she had apparently stepped on the gas so as not to be seen, Friedman remarked. (The man who called 911 declined to talk to Tailpipe, but his wife confirmed the Warhaftigs' story as well as Friedman's remarks, though she asked that her name not be used.)

The Warhaftigs say that Friedman stepped in to assist the judge, and she quickly "lawyered up." Neither Gardiner nor Friedman responded to requests for comment.

Police accident investigator Linda Williams spoke briefly to Gardiner, who said she had been looking for an address. Williams issued the judge a citation for "failure to use due care." The investigator (a civilian employee) also told the Warhaf­tigs that they themselves could have been issued a $35 ticket for parking in a street's right of way. "But that wouldn't do any good," Williams reportedly told them. Asked if Gardiner could be cited for leaving the scene, Williams told them, "Well, she was here when I got here."

Police public information officer Kathy Collins last Friday contacted Williams, who said she did not know at the time who Gardiner was. She also said there was no reason to ask Gardiner to take a Breathalyzer test. "There was no indication that [Gardiner] was under the influence," Collins said.

The Warhaftigs say they're less angry about the accident than about Gardiner's muteness. My Warhaftig said she was also upset about Gardiner's recklessness in a residential neighborhood — "There were 50 kids there, running all over the place," says Warhaftig, the mother of two, "and she could easily have hit one of them" — as well as the suggestion from Friedman that the Warhaftigs themselves may have somehow been culpable.

After talking to Gardiner, Friedman jokingly asked My Warhaftig if she was "drunk" when she parked her car. (The woman who asked that her name be withheld said that parking is often an issue when there are parties in the gated community, but she added that the Mercedes was clearly visible to any passing motorist.) Even this old auto accessory knows that, no matter the circumstances, it's always the rear-ender who's at fault, never the rear-endee.

When My Warhaftig complained to Friedman that, even though the Mercedes was a company car, her loss was big enough to warrant some verbal concern from Gardiner, Friedman responded prissily: "If you can't afford to lose it [the car], you shouldn't drive it."

For Tailpipe, this was the most revealing comment of all. When you're an administrative judge or a high-flying attorney, when you're a member of the Big Law brotherhood, it's all just easy come, easy go. Even when the stakes include a $50,000 Mercedes with fewer than 3,000 miles on it.

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