We tried to get some comment this week from the attorneys representing Palm Beach Circuit Court Judge Barry Cohen, a famously outspoken liberal who's facing some of the most transparently bogus ethics charges ever to go before the Florida Supreme Court.
No dice. Neither Scott Richardson nor Donnie Murrell, grizzled veterans of the criminal defense bar, would discuss what political considerations might be driving the case. Understandable.
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Cohen has been cited by the state's powerful Judicial Qualifying Commission for speaking out from the bench (about, among other things, the insanity of our drug laws) and outside the courtroom (about racial profiling and a local election). He has not been accused of erroneous or illegal or corrupt rulings, however, and judges often play the pundit in court, so we wonder if it's Cohen's political leanings that led to the charges.
As state law provides, the identity of Cohen's accuser is confidential. (Though as reported by the Palm Beach Post's ace scribe Jane Musgrave, it is widely believed that former State Attorney Peter Antonacci dropped the dime on the judge.)
Do jurists surrender all First Amendment rights when they don the robes? We're no legal scholars, but we don't see the charges holding up.
Even in a 1982 reprimand of Orlando Judge William C. Gridley, for meddling on behalf of a defendant, the Supreme Court held that "There is no doubt that a judge in an appropriate forum may express his protest, dissent, and criticism of the present state of the law." Then-Chief Justice Sundberg added that such dissent isn't limited to judicial and legal arenas but includes "a much larger community."
Gridley went on to serve another 25 years on the bench.
Donnie Murrell, though silent on the politics of the Cohen case, bent our ear on a broader question: mandatory minimum sentencing, how it shackles the hands of judges, leads to prison overcrowding and budget shortfalls, and just plain screws folks over on the basis of legal technicalities.
Mandatory minimums "stand justice on its head," Murrell said. "They tie judges' hands and leave 25-year-old prosecutors fresh out of law school, with no life experience, with the authority to choose what to prosecute," effectively determining sentences.
"Where's the justice in that?" Murrell asked. "It's given the U.S. the largest prison population in the world. Doesn't that scare people?"
Murrell probably had mandatory minimums in mind because of another recent case of his. But the injustice of that practice was also a pet peeve of Judge Cohen's, one he spoke out on critically and for which he's now in hot water.
Cohen was right about mandatory minimums and right to speak out.