South Florida's Judges Are Too White, Lawyers Say

At times, Judge Matthew Destry has handed down sentences even longer than prosecutors had sought.
At times, Judge Matthew Destry has handed down sentences even longer than prosecutors had sought.
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According to U.S. Census data, there are roughly 1.8 million people living in Broward County. It's a majority-minority country: 28 percent of those people — some 600,000 residents — identify as black or African-American, and 27 percent more identify as Hispanic or Latino.

As such, a local panel of lawyers says, the fact that only six of Broward County's 90 judges are black is unacceptable.

"In 1988, we had six black judges serving in Broward County," says George Odom Jr., a local lawyer and former assistant public defender. "As of today, we still have six black judges in Broward County. It hasn't improved in 30 years."

Odom, who's been working as a lawyer in South Florida since 2013, is member of the Virgil Hawkins South Florida Chapter of the National Bar Association, a subsection of the largest African-American bar association in the country. He says diversity has become such an issue that he and his colleagues will convene a panel on April 23 to address the issue.

The event, at Fort Lauderdale's Marriott Harbor Beach, will feature a number of Broward's prominent African-American legal experts, including lawyer Alfred Coward.

Problems of judicial diversity, Odom says, are really problems of empathy. A judge, he says, needs to be "fair, honest, be able to understand all parties." In a criminal justice system where the majority of defendants are people of color, he says, "it's hard to be as understanding when 88, 90 percent of the judiciary identifies as white. We're talking about fairness: The majority of individuals that go before court are going to be African-American, but the prosecutor’s going to be white, the judge is white, and the attorney's probably white."

Last month, New Times published an investigation into the sentencing habits of Broward Circuit Court Judge Matthew Destry, who has been criticized for handing out "harsh" or "random" sentences to young, black defendants. In 2015, Destry sentenced Herb Smith, a 23-year-old who'd violated his probation, to 60 years in prison, more than four times what prosecutors had asked for. Destry then made a flabbergasting U-turn and dropped the 60-year prison sentence to just 15 years of probation.

"To go from 60 years in prison to being released that day — the takeaway is that justice is random in Broward County," Public Defender Howard Finkelstein told New Times in March.

Judges come to the bench one of two ways in Florida: Either through a public vote or a governor's appointment. Typically, judges in the county and circuit courts are elected, while district and Supreme Court judges are appointed. But when any judge resigns or retires, the governor convenes a Judicial Nominating Committee to appoint someone new.

Rick Scott, Odom says, hasn't appointed a single African-American circuit court judge since he took office. In 2014, the Tampa Bay Times analyzed Scott's judicial appointments and found he'd been appointing fewer black judges than either of his last two predecessors, Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush.

"We know the governor, and I know the governor," Odom says. "He’s a smart man; he's aware of the lack of African-Americans on the bench. If 25 percent of the county identifies as African-American, then we ought to have 30-odd judges, give or take." And, Odom says, if any of Broward's six existing black judges retire, he's worried that number will drop even further.

To become eligible for the judiciary, a person must first practice law for five years. There are more than 350 to 400 African-American lawyers in Broward County alone, Odom says. "We hear that there aren't enough 'qualified' applicants," he says. "We hear there need to exceptional attorneys to be judges, but then I look back on the appointments in Broward. It's not the best light they’ve been cast in. Everyone has their faults, but my point here is this: Why is it that there is a certain standard for our lawyers, but then there’s not that same standard for other lawyers?"

But the problem is two-sided, he says, since Florida's lower-court justices are elected, rather than appointed. Part of the panel's job, he says, will be to try to convince voters to push for more nominees of color.

"Judges have a power," he says. "There's only one type of person that can sentence you to death, and it's not a supreme court judge — it’s a circuit court judge. If we can't get an appropriate amount of diversity, then the people coming to the courtroom suffer, the whole perception of fairness suffers, and people think the system is rigged."

Here's a flier for the event:

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