A conflict at the Broward Courthouse is shedding some light on the highly political nature of justice.
The spat involves the courtroom of Elijah Williams, a juvenile judge who is running for reelection. The prosecutor assigned to Williams' courtroom is Sheila Alu, who also happens to be a sitting Sunrise city commissioner. This past Friday, Alu sent an email to several of her well-heeled contacts -- including Ron Book, Terry Stiles, Lori Parrish, and a host of other heavyweights -- promoting a fundraiser for Judge Williams. Here's the email:
Sent: Fri, Sep 11, 2009 5:26 pm
Subject: Need a Big Favor
I am entering my second year as a new lawyer, and I have been very fortunate to have had the honor to appear before the Honorable Judge Elijah Williams. I know some of you may not be lawyers nor have ever come into contact with the Judiciary, but Judge Williams has positively affected the lives of so many young people, and moreover he truly exemplifies the true purpose of why I became a lawyer.
Judge Williams is running for re-election. As we all know, campaigns cost money. So, I am sending you this email to ask for your help in retaining a Judge who is truly worthy of our support.
I have attached a flyer regarding Judge Williams' upcoming fundraiser, which will be held at YOLO's this Wednesday, September 16, 2009, from 5:00 to 7:00 PM. I know times are really tough, so anything that you can do to help keep Judge Williams on the bench would be greatly appreciated!
Thank you so much in advance for your support!
Hope everyone is doing well!
When the Public Defender's Office got wind of the email, it complained to the State Attorney's Office and demanded that Alu be transferred from the courtroom. Williams recused himself from one case involving Alu today as well.
Alu says that she retains the full support of her supervisors -- including State Attorney Michael Satz -- and that she is certain she crossed no
"I've done nothing wrong," Alu told me today. "If every lawyer who gave a political contribution weren't allowed to practice before the judge, there wouldn't be anyone to try cases here. The Public Defender's Office has been a fundraising machine for all the years I've been in politics. I find it ironic that they take issue for me raising money for any candidate."
Public Defender Howard Finkelstein agrees that Alu did nothing wrong but said in an email to the Pulp that the "appearance of impropriety" drove his office to action.
"Sheila is right in that she didn't do anything wrong, either legally or ethically. She has a First Amendment right to donate or in this case raise money for any candidate she wants," Finkelstein wrote. "However my clients also have a right to be tried by a judge that is not indebted to the prosecutor prosecuting them. Remember in juvie the judge is both judge and jury. While I believe Sheila sent the email because she truly believes Judge Williams is a good judge, and I would agree, and I don't believe Judge Williams would be swayed by Sheila's help in his legal decisions, the appearance of impropriety cannot be ignored. If your child was on trial in front of Judge Williams would you be comfortable if you found out the prosecutor raised thousands of dollars for the judge?"
Hard to argue. Finkelstein also acknowledged that the Public Defender's Office has historically been a political machine but that he "depoliticized" it when he took office. No doubt there has been a world of difference between the iconoclastic crusader for justice Finkelstein and his schmoozy predecessor, Alan Schreiber.
But helping Alu's point is the fact that after Assistant Public Defender Jacqueline Moody learned of the fundraiser, she contacted Alu and asked for a copy of the flier so she could send it around as well. Moody is also assigned to Williams' courtroom. Here's Finkelstein's take on that in another email:
I didn't know about Moody 'til i read it in your post. Always the last to know. My chief of juvie, Gordon Weekes, confirmed she asked Alu for the flyer and was going to send it around but didn't. I will find out more tomorrow. If she actively did anything to raise money for the judge I will transfer her. What's good for the goose...The reason I wanted this stopped is because I have been trying to break the grease cycle of the criminal justice system since I took over. In the past it was campaign contributions in return for court appointments. Everyone getting fat while the clients were not being served by a lawyer whose only allegiance was to them. Money and justice is a fetid and toxic mix. In the end poor people always get screwed. After all they don't have the money to get the grease.
How can you not love that?
Alu says that she will likely transfer to another juvenile judge's courtroom after the controversy. "I feel like a prosecutor without a division right now," said Alu. "I shook Judge Williams' hand today and said goodbye."
Probably for the best, although this may all be par for the course. I'm sure the extra political juice that Alu has as an elected official helped prompt the response from the PD's office. And if nothing else, the imbroglio underscores just how political our system of justice really is.