You might think the judge who presides over the mental health court would recognize signs of mental illness when he sees them. Apparently, that’s not the case with Judge Mark Speiser.
At a probate hearing on June 17, Speiser charged Jennifer Mia Woodward, who struggles with bipolar disorder, with contempt of court. In the order, he accused her of “turning the subject hearing into a circus-like atmosphere.”
Woodward was in court because she’d been named in a dispute over the ownership of a house in Oakland Park that had belonged to a relative. Speiser says she and her son had moved in and been squatting there, in violation of a court order.
“From the outset, this lady was very obstreperous, always interrupting me, interrupting the lawyer, pointing her fingers in his face, calling the opposing attorney names,” he told New Times. “And then she gave me the finger, okay? The environment was chaotic, and I had to do something.”
Woodward was not informed of her right to a court-appointed lawyer for the contempt hearing, and there is no record of the proceedings besides the fact that she was sentenced to 15 days in jail. Not long after she arrived in her cell, she was placed on suicide watch. Other inmates urged her to contact the public defender’s office.
When she did, the attorneys were outraged. In a letter to Chief Judge Peter Weinstein, public defender Howard Finkelstein writes that Speiser’s behavior was “more reminiscent of the Dark Ages than in accordance with today’s ethical treatment of the disabled.” Meanwhile, chief assistant public defender Gordon Weekes points out that as someone who deals with mentally ill people on a regular basis, Speiser should have recognized that Woodward’s behavior was not intended to be disrespectful but instead was symptomatic of her illness.
“If someone was having a heart attack and they were convulsing, no one would charge them with battery,” he says. “I can only imagine how terrifying it was for a mentally ill woman to have to explain to a judge why she should not be sent to jail.”
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Speiser argues that he couldn’t be expected to know about Woodward’s condition.
“I don’t have everybody that walks into my courtroom prescreened to tell me if they have a mental illness,” he says. “I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but I know the difference between someone who’s bipolar or schizophrenic and someone who has an antisocial personality. In my opinion, she has an antisocial personality.”
In fact, Woodward does have a documented history of bipolar disorder and depression. The fact that Speiser didn’t consider that to be a possibility disturbs Owen McNamee, who heads the mental health division of the Broward Public Defender’s Office and has previously raised concerns about how the judge treats people with mental illnesses.
“He should have, at the very least, said, ‘Let’s get her evaluated,’” McNamee says. “I mean, he’s the mental health judge.”