Court Jesters

Brown is the color of choice for R.O. Dale Ross. The spines of his law books are leathery tan, the vinyl on his chairs is cardboard-box brown, and his wooden table is the hue of watery chewing tobacco. Even the Lady Justice on the wall clock in the chief judge´s eighth-floor courthouse office is a dark, bronzy brown. Brown, brown, and mo re brown as in the color of the storm that´s been whirling around the Broward County Courthouse, where Ross is the judge over all the judges. It´s the county known to the rest of the world as a place where votes don´t get counted right, where a judge cries on camera over a dead B-list bimbo, and where another judge gets busted smoking dope in a park near children playing.

If you didn´t already know that at least one judge in the state´s 17th Judicial Circuit was getting high, these days you´d be liable to suspect it. And it´s not just the judges who are crying. Now, tears of shame are shed by anyone who´s been paying attention long enough to look past the waterfront jailhouse, where the sheriff is under federal investigation, and gaze upon the county´s courts, where more than a handful of the men and women in robes have been acting more backward than horses´ asses.

¨People are talking about this all over the state,¨ Public Defender Howard Finkelstein says. ¨It´s throwing the institution of the judiciary into disrepute whether it´s deserved or not.¨


Broward County courts

Yet somehow, through it all, Ross´ leadership has survived.

Ross is the longest-serving chief judge in Florida history. He´s ridden out countless scandals, including allegations by a lawyer that Ross sexually abused her in 1996, a news account that Ross lied about his birthplace, rumors that he abused steroids, and appellate rulings reversing his decisions and calling him pro-prosecution.

Ross calls these kinds of problems ¨isolated incidents¨ and vowed recently to outlive them as chief judge.

¨In light of all the controversy, I think it´s quite necessary that I stay,¨ he said May 16.

On May 17, Ross attended an annual state-of-the-court meeting at the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach, which has jurisdiction over Broward, Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River, and Okeechobee counties.

On May 18, an appellate court judge contacted defense attorney Bill Gelin whose blog, Ross said, was undermining the judiciary to offer help for a justice system in distress, according to Gelin. Why?

¨I think they realized Dale Ross was bad for the judge business,¨ Gelin says.

That weekend, the blog, at jaablog.jaablaw.com, lit up with posts about Ross´ alleged sexual assault and the recent appointment of his daughter, former prosecutor Stacy M. Ross, to the bench.

On Tuesday, May 22, Dale Ross announced that he would resign as chief judge although he intends to stay on until September 4, when he´ll be replaced by the winner of a planned July 3 special election.

¨I don´t think he wants to step down,¨ says Chris Stotz, spokesman for the 17th Judicial Circuit.

¨After much reflection and soul searching, maybe it´s time to be a real judge again,¨ Ross said in a memo sent to fellow judges and court staff.

Ross will eventually step down, he continued in the memo, because the past couple of years ¨have been particularly difficult for me and my family¨ and because he plans to have double hip-replacement surgery in July, but ¨primarily because of my love for our circuit...

¨Our circuit has accomplished a number of firsts´ and has been very aggressive and pro-active in serving the people of the State of Florida.¨

Ross, 59, has been on the bench since 1981. He´s been chief judge since 1990, a tenure that has had many critics calling for term limits. He´s five-foot-eight, with salt-and-pepper hair that he keeps closely cropped. He´s trim and muscular, still lifting weights at the downtown YMCA most days. He´s fit, no doubt, but Ross may not be the most modern jurist. He refuses to put a computer in his office. One of the first times he used a cell phone was during the summer of 2004, when a round of hurricanes battered South Florida into a state of emergency and closed his courthouse for stretches at a time. Ross´ role as chief entails mostly administrative duties such as assigning courtrooms, offices, and parking spots, but the chief judge also establishes local rules regarding such things as the cost of the defense of the indigent, and he sets the court´s calendar, schedules judges for weekend work, and appoints temporary judges. He also hires and oversees senior administrative staff members such as the court administrator and the attorney for the circuit, both highly paid positions. More significant, he can, at his discretion, put any of the 90 or so other judges in the circuit on administrative leave.

All of that gives a chief judge power. He also wields influence, as when the governor or the Judicial Nominating Commission consults him about appointments to the bench and through his control of the circuit´s budget.

Ross has long operated without much apparent oversight himself, although some hope that´s about to change. The question, though, is whether the escapades and mores of his circuit will change as well.

Meantime, there is another concern. Ross, as chief judge, did not have a full docket. That the unreformed Ross would return to hearing cases and presiding over trials full-time is a new worry for some Broward lawyers.

A cascade of judges during Ross´ tenure in the top seat have committed sins worse than Judge Larry Seidlin´s sobbing on live television during the custody battle over Anna Nicole Smith´s body, even as Seidlin was angling to get his own TV show.

Following are some of the highlights.

According to police reports, in 2001, Judge Joyce A. Julian got drunk at an annual judicial conference at the Amelia Island Ritz Carlton, stripped from the waist down, and wandered around the hotel´s hallways until she passed out. The state´s Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) investigated Julian´s actions, but before it could take any action, Julian lost her bid for reelection a first in Broward County. A criminal disorderly intoxication charge against Julian was dropped after she entered a 30-day alcohol-rehab program.

In 2004, Judge Cheryl Alemán, a self-described conservative Christian, refused to let Jean Felix, a black man dying of AIDS, out of jail even though Broward County State Attorney Michael Satz did not oppose the man´s release. Ross took no action then. Two weeks later, however, Ross came to his senses, overruled Alemán, and sent Felix home.

Felix died of an AIDS-related illness last year. Alemán´s actions in his case are now part of a multicount case the JQC brought against her after complaints about her behavior mounted. In its charging documents, the JQC said Alemán had engaged in ¨a pattern of arrogant, discourteous, and impatient conduct.¨ In her response, Alemán said the commission didn´t have the standing to discipline her.

And then there was the ¨NHI¨ flap. It was just this April that Judge Charles Greene, a white man then overseeing the county´s criminal courts, told a couple of attorneys that the only reason he could see that a jury acquitted one black man of a charge that he tried to kill another black man was that jurors didn´t care about anyone in a case with ¨no humans involved.¨

Ross took no action against Greene. Instead, Greene asked to be transferred to the civil division of county courts, a request that Ross granted. On the bright side, no one´s freedom is at stake on the civil side; the only thing in jeopardy there is property.

A few days after Greene resigned from his role in the criminal courts, Ross held a news conference in his office, where the sheer brown dullness belies the Crayola colorfulness of the goings-on in the rest of the building. There, Ross announced that he´d asked a member of Florida´s Commission on Human Relations to help solve problems his courts seem to have with diversity.

The announcement marked the second time in as many years that Ross has been compelled to seek outside help to address judgmental, unjudge-like conduct. Last summer, he hired a consulting firm to give his judges sensitivity training after Judge Leonard Feiner complained that the mostly black, Haitian janitors weren´t cleaning the courthouse well enough, saying, ¨They may live in... in hovels, where they... where they live, but they don´t have to leave places they work looking like a dump.¨ The remark was all the sweeter coming from a jurist who often eschews his robe and calls cases with his shirt unbuttoned far enough to reveal thick, black chest hair and a gold necklace.

About the same time that Feiner was sharing his benighted views, Judge Lee Seidman was routinely asking defendants in traffic court whether they were illegal aliens. A few months before that, Larry Korda, the dope-smoking judge, had a woman come before him seeking a restraining order against her abusive husband. Korda told her to speak English. ¨She doesn´t need any translation,¨ he said. ¨She has been here 19 years. She´s watched Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? for 15.¨

Ross himself has not avoided such missteps, even after he got trained in sensitivity. When a black defendant appeared before him, charged with violating a noise ordinance, Ross wanted to know if the man had been listening to ¨that rap music.¨ Ross did, however, dismiss the charge. Explaining his remarks, Ross said, ¨For the life of me, [I] didn´t know why this guy was arrested. I thought maybe the police were busting this guy´s back. And I said, Don´t tell me it was because he was playing that rap music´... And it turns out that was the case.¨

Whether Ross has governed himself may be debatable, but he clearly has declined to exercise his authority over other Broward judges. Even when those judges have themselves become criminal defendants, Ross has failed to put them on administrative leave. Instead, reassigning them to the civil division is the most he´s done. Yet there´s another standard at play when Ross has the fate of people in his hands and they don´t happen to be judges. Ross beats the gavel harder on folks accused of violating probation. And the Fourth District Court of Appeal has had something to say about that, reversing Ross numerous times in such cases on the grounds that he abuses his discretion. According to the appellate court, Ross has been particularly heartless in a few instances.

In 1999, Janet Hern was on probation after pleading guilty to cocaine possession and was motivated to kick her years-long drug habit. Hern attended a group therapy session at the Broward County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services Center, which let out at 8:15 p.m. As a condition of her probation, Hern was required to be home no later than 8:30 p.m. but she missed her bus home that night and decided to walk rather than wait an hour for the next bus, although she knew it would take her at least 45 minutes to make the trip on foot, in part because she´d fractured her foot a few weeks earlier. She made it home at 9:05 p.m., whereupon she discovered that her community control officer had already come by to check on her. She called him to explain but got no answer, she said. The next day, she told her probation officer what had happened. A probation officer must note such violations, and then a prosecutor decides whether to take them before a judge something that Broward County State Attorney Satz´s office does in almost every case. To revoke probation, under Florida law, a judge must find that the violation was willful. Enter Ross, who revoked Hern´s probation.

Hern got some relief on appeal, when a three-judge panel ordered her released from prison five months later and five days after Christmas.

And then there was Evelyn Jackson, also on probation in 1999 as part of a plea deal for burglary and battery charges. Jackson was ordered confined to her residence. At the time, she was in her late 20s, pregnant, and a patient at the Henderson Mental Health Clinic. She had a ninth-grade education. It was August. She stepped out into her fenced yard. And so she was hauled before Ross, who likened her behavior to a ¨jailbreak.¨

¨Confined to residence doesn´t mean running around the yard,¨ Ross said at the time. ¨We have to analogize this to the Broward County Jail. If one leaves his or her jail cell, that´s a jailbreak, although I think based on [Jackson´s] circumstances here, maybe we should take that into consideration.¨ So Ross sentenced her to three years and three months in prison, the shortest term he could under the state´s sentencing guidelines.

Of course, Ross didn´t have to find that Jackson had violated her probation. That seemed to be the inclination of Fourth District Judge George Allen Shahood, writing for the court, who said Ross had abused his judicial discretion.

¨It is certainly reasonable to conduce that [Jackson], having a limited education, pregnant and with no air conditioning, believed she was not violating her condition of community control by stepping outside and remaining on the premises of her residence,¨ Shahood wrote. ¨This is not, as characterized by the court, a situation where appellant was running around her yard. This was not a jailbreak.´¨

In another sternly worded ruling in 1999, the Fourth District admonished Ross in the case of James McFadden, who was on probation after a third robbery conviction, which made him eligible to be sentenced as a career criminal. According to the opinion, Ross ¨told the prosecutor what to ask and what evidence to adduce.¨

¨We cannot escape a settled feeling that [Ross] went too far in assisting an unprepared state attorney to establish the [violation of probation],¨ Judge Gary M. Farmer wrote for the court. ¨Simply stated, the trial judge´s conduct crossed the line of ostensible neutrality and impartiality and operated to deny the defendant essential due process by depriving him of the appearance of an unbiased magistrate and an impartial trier of fact.¨

The current frontrunner to take over Ross´ brown office, Judge Thomas M. Lynch IV, 56, the administrative judge of the civil division and a former chief assistant public defender, won´t do much to change anything, says Howard Finkelstein, the public defender. ¨It is obvious to everyone that Tom [Lynch] is hand-in-glove with Dale Ross,¨ Finkelstein says. ¨It will not be the people who brought us here who can take us away from it. It´s got to be a fresh face. It can´t be anyone already part of the judicial administration, which has brought us to this place.¨

Finkelstein, 53, a recovering cocaine addict, was elected public defender in 2004 and has been making waves ever since. ¨They hate me,¨ he says of Ross and others in judicial administration. ¨I think that what frustrates the bejeepers out of them because in their world, it´s tit for tat is that in my world, it is, Do the right thing as the situation calls for it.´ Personality and politics never enter into it. That´s what true believers believe.¨

Finkelstein´s not alone. A growing number of private defense attorneys are on his side, including Gelin, the blogger. Gelin and Finkelstein have more in common than their graying ponytails: They both truly believe that Ross presides over a broken system and that change must come, and sweepingly.

¨We´re just saying the same things that have been said around the halls of the courthouse every day for years,¨ Gelin says. ¨These guys just get so caught up in themselves and their power and position. This place is so sick. It wants to be cured. You couldn´t invent the stuff that´s been going on here... These judges are misbehaving, acting so infantile. It´s amazing that they´re doing this stuff.

¨Have these people lost all connection to the community or their role in it?¨

And who is Gelin to be saying this?

¨I´m somebody with a license to practice law in Florida, so they [have] to hear it,¨ he says. ¨Lawyers need to take a stand for what´s right. You can effect positive change.¨

Some say Gelin and Finkelstein are already doing it.

¨In the last eight months, these two guys with ponytails have changed more around here than in the past 20 years,¨ says Marshall E. Williams, an insider at the Broward County Courthouse who has also served on the Judicial Nominating Commission. ¨It´s time.¨

Ross says he prefers constructive criticism of the one-on-one variety. In fact, talking to just Ross, it can be easy to forget all of the synchronistic happenings that have shaped the current state of the county´s judiciary.

¨I found out something about myself a few years ago,¨ Ross says. ¨People who don´t know me tend not to like me. But people who know me really, really like me. It seems it´s easier to maybe stand off and criticize a person when they don´t know them. It´s like, wow where do they get these things? But the issue is, first of all, obviously Dale Ross has no influence when it comes to who´s on the bench. If you then want to credit me as having some input on the selection of judges... but I don´t accept that premise.

¨JNC members, very independent. I don´t think anybody can tell those members who to nominate. They do go through due diligence; they do call members of the community, and they seek input. If you want to credit me with the JNC members with valuing my opinion but I think you´re giving me too much credit.¨

Then Ross points to recent appointments of Hispanic and black lawyers to the bench. ¨It´s gotta work both ways,¨ he says. ¨I either believe in diversity or I don´t. Maybe it´s neither of the above. If you want to give Dale Ross credit, it goes both ways.¨

That´s Dale Ross on Dale Ross in the third person. Why does he do that?

¨I don´t know,¨ Ross says, hesitating. ¨You´d have to ask a psychologist. I can´t answer that question.¨

But then he does.

¨Maybe because Dale Ross the human being and the judge are different,¨ he hazards. ¨I love being a judge. I´d do it for free. But I´m separate and apart from being a judge. I´m not presumptuous. I don´t think largely of myself. I don´t know I´m not a psychologist.¨

Finkelstein, Gelin, and others think they know the answer to this question.

¨I think he talks that way because he´s an arrogant, pompous guy,¨ says Gelin, who was assigned to Ross´ courtroom when he was an assistant public defender five years ago. ¨He thinks he´s larger-than-life and strolling the Earth amongst the mortals, and that´s the worst kind of attitude a public servant can have. A megalomaniac. When I was his staff public defender in the juvenile division, I saw some of the most outrageous behavior. And he´s setting the example.¨

Fred Haddad, a high-profile defense attorney who has practiced law in Broward County for 34 years, disagrees. ¨There are 101 judges in the county,¨ Haddad says. ¨They all have the right to tell Dale to fuck off. The only thing Dale can really do is assign divisions, give them a parking spot.

¨It´s not a lack of leadership. You can´t lead when you´ve got people who don´t want to be led. I don´t think anybody could run Broward County judges.¨

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