Florida’s chief justice and the hunt for goof-off judges

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

Florida’s chief justice has ordered the state’s 20 chief judges to monitor the work of each judge in their circuit looking for goof-offs – a move that’s unnerved judges in South Florida and elsewhere.

In the same Dec. 1 administrative order, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga directed each chief judge to “separately communicate” with each trial court judge in their circuit “the importance of a professional work ethic and accountability to the judiciary as a full-time commitment.”

“Neglect of duty” offenses “shall be reported by the chief judge to the chief justice of this court,” Labarga’s order says.

Labarga declined an interview request to discuss what prompted the order.

But Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said, “The Chief Justice simply wants to make sure that the chief judges and the judges they supervise understand that there are consequences for violations of the public trust. We certainly realize that most of our judges honor their duties, but we feel it is a healthy thing to remind everyone of their ethical obligations.”

Broward, where judicial misbehavior has made national headlines and County Court Judge Gisele Pollack and Circuit Judge Laura Marie Watson are defending ethics charges brought against them by the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), is among a number of circuits thought to have motivated Labarga’s order.

“The Supreme Court has to have a statewide perspective,” said Waters. “The people in the 18th Circuit (Brevard and Seminole counties) are convinced that the order is aimed at them.” Three judges from the 18th Circuit have disciplinary cases pending before the JQC.

Still, over the years Broward has had its fair share of concern about judges allegedly shirking their duty.

Larry Seidlin, the weepy probate judge who gained notoriety presiding over the high-profile Anna Nicole Smith case, had a reputation for paying more attention to his backhand than his caseload before his 2007 retirement. And this fall’s election included allegations that defeated incumbent Judge Stephen Feren was frequently absent from the courthouse.

Chief judges are elected to two-year terms by their fellow judges and serve as the administrative officer in their circuit, with supervisory authority over all judges and court personnel.

ENSURING ACCOUNTABILITY

The new administrative order obliges chiefs to ensure accountability by the judges they oversee.

“Until this order came out, the chief judge, at least in Broward, was largely a ceremonial title where you went to rubber chicken lunches and you cut ribbons at the courthouse,” said Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. “I was told by at least four chief judges that whether a judge was intoxicated on the bench or was violating people’s rights by not following the law they had no authority to do anything…This order, as I read it, puts it clearly on the chief judges.”

Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein has the new, laborious chore of monitoring his colleagues’ work in the 17th Judicial Circuit. How will he do it?

“That’s an excellent question when you have 90 judges,” he said. “It’s hard to quantify a judge’s work.”

Weinstein said he hoped to get more specific direction from Labarga at the quarterly chief judges’ meeting at the Supreme Court today, Dec. 12.

“This will be discussed, and if it isn’t I will talk with Chief Justice Labarga personally to ask him, ‘What is it you actually want us to do?’” said Weinstein.

JAABBLOG, a courthouse blog written by attorney William Gelin, reported Tuesday that the chief justice’s administrative order may have been a response to a potential investigation of Broward’s judiciary by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The blog said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, confirmed that public hearings had been considered, but were obviated by Labarga’s order.

Simmons did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Waters, the high court’s spokesman, was asked whether Labarga was aware of the Senate’s concerns, and whether that prompted his order.

“We of course always have a dialogue going on with the Legislature and of course are open to whatever concerns they have,” said Waters, who declined further comment.

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  1. Charmaine Engelsman-Robins says:

    Wow, not TOO grade school. Does this remind anyone else of the “safety patrol” who upon appointment became a little tyrant screeching “I’m gonna report you!”? Yeah, the classic set-up for “Let’s you and them fight.” And one of these judges, ’til now regarded as a figurehead, is going to ride herd on 90 other judges? Thoroughly and evenly, without prejudice?

    All righty then…

  2. Ana Ross says:

    Let’s pray that the chief judges and the chief justice take seriously the administrative order no matter whose feathers get ruffled.

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