By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
John “Jay” Hurley, a Broward County judge who’s gained a measure of online celebrity for his brand of televised justice, will keep his post in bond court despite a call for his removal by Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein.
Finkelstein complained to Chief Judge Peter M. Weinstein last week in a letter that Hurley should be booted out of magistrate court for “expressing his contempt for the homeless and members of my office.”
Saying Hurley “has crossed the line,” Finkelstein asked Weinstein to transfer him in a letter recounting five incidents from October 7-15. DVD recordings that Finkelstein said depict “Judge Hurley’s rash and troubling behavior” accompanied the four-page letter.
“Each DVD shows Judge Hurley over-reacting, abusing his judicial authority and acting in a manner unbecoming a judicial officer,” Finkelstein wrote. “His behavior is clearly intended to bully and intimidate the attorneys and prevent them from effectively representing detainees.”
But in a Sunday telephone interview, Weinstein rejected Finkelstein’s request.
“Jay Hurley is doing a fine job. He’s a good judge. It’s a tough assignment and there are all kinds of issues, but there are no plans for him to move,” said Weinstein, who has served as chief judge since 2011.
Specifically, Finkelstein accused Hurley of chastising one public defender, threatening two others with contempt and twice having Chief Assistant Public Defender Nadine Girault Levy thrown out of court for seeking to assist homeless persons charged with violating municipal ordinances.
“On one occasion he actually pressed the panic button to stop her from making legal argument,” Finkelstein told Weinstein. “In an attempt to humiliate Girault Levy, Judge Hurley then ordered her to remain in the courtroom until deputies arrive[d] so she could be escorted from the courtroom by armed deputies.”
Hurley declined comment Friday through his secretary.
The web site CourtChatter.tv streams live video from Broward’s bond court and other locations. In June, Miami’s NBC 6 reported that Hurley has a daily following “on computer screens across the nation.” Site owner Cathy Russon told the station, “Judge Hurley popped into our chat room the other night, and oh my God, it’s like a celebrity that is better than George Clooney.”
Finkelstein, widely known locally as TV legal advice maven “Help Me Howard,” said the judge’s actions followed challenges by public defenders to Hurley’s “refusal to appoint counsel to homeless persons” charged with violating city ordinances.
Florida’s court operations are funded by the state, except for criminal violations of city ordinances. If a police officer arrests an indigent for a municipal infraction, the city must pay for a defense lawyer.
But city paid defense lawyers, like city prosecutors, typically don’t appear at bond hearings due to cost considerations. They only show up after the case proceeds to court.
Public defenders are state-funded and do not handle municipal cases. Yet they are always present at magistrate hearings and are permitted by law to counsel indigent defendants and ensure they get the rights to which they are entitled.
And that’s the rub. Indigents accused of minor city violations are, in what Finkelstein said in an interview is Hurley’s encouragement; often plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of a few days or time served.
“He is more focused on quickly moving through the docket than ensuring that defendants understand the process,” Finkelstein said in his letter.
Hurley’s refusal to appoint a lawyer to defend homeless persons arrested for municipal violations is allegedly personal.
In his letter, Finkelstein told Chief Judge Weinstein that at an Oct. 14 hearing Hurley went into a 10 minute “impromptu tirade” in which he “interjected his personal feelings into the proceedings and admitted that his wife and family had been approached by the homeless while in their car in traffic. He attempted to minimize his comments by characterizing them as ‘venting’ and repeatedly emphasized his compassion for homeless people while he continued to complain about being harassed by the homeless.”
Finkelstein also cited Hurley’s handling of defendant Gregory Williams at an Oct. 8 bond hearing. Via video proceedings, Williams told the judge that he was deaf and did not use sign language, but did read lips.
“Judge Hurley completely ignored (Chief Assistant PD) Girault Levy’s request to appoint counsel to Williams and to transport Williams to the courtroom so he could read the court’s lips and understand the hearing,” Finkelstein wrote.
Instead, Hurley accepted a no contest plea from Williams over video.
“Judge Hurley relied on a detention deputy to “translate.” It is apparent that Williams did not understand what was said and only wished to be released from custody, Finkelstein told the chief judge. “Judge Hurley denied Williams due process of law and failed to accommodate his disability in order to expedite and extricate a plea.”
Weinstein, while declaring his support for Hurley, acknowledged the court has “issues with how we deal with municipal ordinance violations” and said he’s taking steps to address them.
“We are in the process of working on a new administrative order to make things a lot clearer,” Weinstein said. He said the changes should be implemented by the end of the year.