The early a.m. docket at Broward County's criminal court is like the day's first race at a dog track — if you start late, it screws up the whole schedule.
But two circuit court judges have regularly shown up to the bench tardy — around 9:40 a.m. or later — in the past school year, according to accounts from three lawyers, two of whom requested anonymity because they work in the court. That has left dozens of lawyers, witnesses, defendants, family members, and cops waiting. To catch up, the attorneys say judges must speed through the docket, leaving less time for each individual hearing or court appearance.
The reason, the lawyers allege, is that Judge David A. Haimes and Judge Michael A. Usan have been teaching morning classes at American Heritage School, a high-end Plantation private school where both judges have sent their children.
“You have high-volume courtrooms on the criminal side, so you have the defendants and their families and witnesses," says Bill Gelin, a rabble-rousing attorney/blogger who frequently chides the behavior of judges on Justice Advocacy Association of Broward blog. "They all have jobs, so they end up missing a lot of work. You also have experts, police officers, and lawyers who are charging people large fees. So there's obviously a lot of issues with delaying everything.”
A second lawyer who often appears in both Usan's and Haimes' courtrooms adds, “They don't teach daily, but it definitely happens multiple times a week. They set the docket at 8:30 or 9, and they know they're not going to be there. There's no other job where you could do that.”
Neither Usan nor Haimes responded to two phone messages seeking comment. An American Heritage spokesperson, Melanie Hoffman, also declined to answer any question about the judges' work at the school. “We're not going to comment,” she said.
Both judges pull in six-figure salaries – Haimes makes $133,500 and Usan $137,000, according to financial disclosures filed last month with the state. The same forms list income for both judges coming from American Learning Systems Inc., an entity with the same address as American Heritage, according to state records. Haimes' form states he makes $5,305 from American Learnings; Usan lists $2,300.
According to its website, American Heritage offers K-12 education at a premium price — up to $26,008 for a year of tuition. For that kind of value, you would expect the highest teaching value. And sure enough, the website lists Haimes and Usan on its faculty page, under social studies.
A 2013 school newsletter states the judges were both teaching in Heritage's pre-law program. It says both judges have children who attend the school. Usan taught a year's worth of “criminal law,” the newsletter stated. Of his class, Haimes said: “Students will learn how to utilize the Federal Rules of evidence. Students participate in mock trial activities in which they both learn and have some fun.”
About a decade back, Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein taught in the same program. He says he worked early in the morning, scheduling any meetings for later in the a.m.. “But I was in a different situation,” Finkelstein says. “I didn't have people waiting for me.”
Finkelstein says he was given a reduction in his daughter's tuition at the school — though he couldn't remember how much. “I did it because I wanted my daughter to go there,” he says. “I did not know in the end teaching would be one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.”
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The anonymous lawyer states the issue is not just working a side gig when you should be on your main job. It's that the side job slows down a whole day's legal process for personal benefit. “They do make up for the fact; both are very efficient,” he adds. “These two guys, I respect them for what they are. [But] I have a problem with what they're doing... OK, if you don't have the money to pay for private school, well, you need to get yourself another job.”
A second anonymous lawyer is less charitable: “Clients have to be there,” he says. “You show up 1.5 hours late, there's a warrant issued for your arrest. If you're a lawyer and you show up 1.5 hours late, they call the case without you.”
Like the judges and the school, Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein didn't reply to a phone call seeking comment. He oversees the Broward judiciary, which has had its share of problems lately. In 2014, three judges were caught driving under the influence in just a two-month span, and just last month Broward Circuit Judge Laura Watson was ousted from office by the Florida Supreme Court.
“These are public servants,” Gelin argues. “Public service is about making sacrifices; it's not about making other people make sacrifices.”