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New Chief Judge Peter Weinstein No Political Novice

Peter Weinstein, the most political judge in Broward County, was rather fittingly elected the chief of the 17th Judicial Circuit yesterday to succeed Victor Tobin.

After 14 years in the Florida Senate and a low-down and bruising loss to Robert Wexler in his bid to become a U.S. Congressman, the Queens-born Weinstein certainly had the campaigning experience to beat his opponent, Susan Greenhawt.

The Sun-Sentinel, in its very brief story on Weinstein's win, mentioned his "usually affable manner," an obtuse reference to his polished public manner. But beneath the friendly exterior, the 64-year-old Weinstein plays hardball. It's said that Weinstein charms everyone in his courtroom -- even some criminal defendants just before, back in his days on the criminal bench, he levied stiff prison sentences on them.

His greatest political battle came against Wexler in 1996. The nasty race for Congress by the two Democrats was described in the press at the time as a "slime pit," and called "mean-spirited," "sleazy," and "vicious." During the race, Weinstein filed a $10 million defamation suit aginst Wexler for his negative campaign ads, in part for distorting his face in campaign ads to make him look like a "bloated Fatty Arbuckle."

But the bitter loss and pending lawsuit -- which was criticized by the Miami Herald as a waste of the court's time -- didn't stop Weinstein from not only campaigning for Wexler in the ensuing general election but also serving on a host committee for one his fundraisers.

More inside on that lawsuit and Weinstein's career in politics. 

The chief allegation in the lawsuit concerned Wexler's characterization of Weinstein as having been "embroiled in an S & L scandal" in a political ad. The truth: Weinstein and some business partners had defaulted on a $1 million from a savings and loan.

Weinstein at the time also called Wexler a "liar" who should be "thrown out of office." Wexler dismissed the suit in published reports.

"Peter Weinstein has lost touch with reality," Wexler told the Sun-Sentinel at the time. "He has spent $ 50,000 of his own money attacking me with ridiculous ads on television, and this is his latest publicity stunt."

The two men eventually settled the suit but not before Weinstein was criticized for filing it in the first place. "Jammed court doesn't need Wexler/Weinstein war of words," read one Miami Herald headline.

The Congressional defeat was by far the toughest campaign of Weinstein's life. He was elected to the state Senate in 1982 with the help of Broward condo vote. Here's how the Herald described his ascension to office in 1996:

When Peter Weinstein burst onto the Broward political scene in 1982, his timing seemed perfect.

He made his debut in a year when state legislative districts had just been reconfigured to maximize the clout of West Broward condos. He unseated state Sen. J.W. "Bill" Stevens, a Republican who had held one office or another since 1947, had voted against the Equal Rights Amendment, and whose rustic style seemed out of place in an emerging urban, ethnic Broward.

With votes from thousands of fellow ex-New Yorkers, Weinstein won and has not been challenged since, winning every few years like a judge, without his name appearing on the ballot. He was the resident senator, without a mandate from the people. 

 

After losing to Wexler, Weinstein was appointed in 1997 as a circuit judge by then-Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. That, too, came with some controversy.

It was reported at the time that Weinstein was using his political ties as a former senator to get the appointment for the new seat. From the Sun-Sentinel at the time:

Many of Weinstein's former colleagues from the Legislature, where he spent 14 years, reminded Chiles of Weinstein's support of the governor when he was in the state Senate.

Weinstein, responding to questions that he at one time said this circuit court seat was created for him, said the state Supreme Court created the seat because there was a need.

''I never said that,'' Weinstein said. ''I felt all along that was an unfair characterization.''

He was also criticized at the time because as a senator he was a big proponent of electing judges -- a system as controversial then as it is now.

"During his long career as a state senator, Peter Weinstein never wavered," then-Miami Herald columnist Steven Bousquet wrote prior to the appointment. "Electing trial court judges in Florida is good, he said, defending a much-maligned system in which schmoozing in the condos seems to count as much as wisdom and temperament. Let the voters decide, he insisted.

"Well, well. Now Weinstein wants to be a judge, and, lo and behold, he wants the governor to appoint him. So, if you thought Broward's last judicial appointment was political, get set for Round 2."

Since the appointment, Weinstein has shown other political ambitions. When Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne was hit with a federal indictment, Weinstein applied for the job, seeking the appointment from Charlie Crist that ultimately went to Al Lamberti. He was also an appointee on the Ilene Lieberman's controversial Broward Courthouse Task Force, which pushed through the plan to build the new $328 million courthouse tower that is now being bid out to contractors.

To Weinstein's credit, through all those years in the senate and as a judge, he's avoided scandal and his work ethic hasn't been questioned. The consensus from sources I've spoken with seems to be that while Weinstein will be no activist as chief judge, he very well prove to be a competent and level-headed leader. Let's hope he will use his political skills and experience to bring some professionalism and a modicum of decency to what has of late been a controversial and scandal-ridden judiciary.


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