By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
A Florida appellate judge who openly sneered at a COVID-19 precaution seems to be helping his court steer legal rulings toward political goals.
Judges are expected to set aside their biases when they rule. Today’s courts must umpire efforts to end a 100-year plague that has killed nearly 700,000 Americans, more than 50,000 of them in Florida.
But Judge Adam Tanenbaum of the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee has written or signed onto pandemic rulings that appear to rely on partisan spin and not on scientific facts.
Most recently, on Sept. 10, Tanenbaum was one of three judges who lifted for now Leon Circuit Judge John Cooper’s order rejecting the state ban on school mask mandates.
The First District panel hinted at defeat for parents who support such mandates. “We have serious doubts … [that] significantly militate against the likelihood of the [parents’] ultimate success in this appeal,” the court’s order says.
FIRST DISTRICT VERSUS UHLFELDER
“You can see the writing on the wall,” said a lawyer who appears in the First District and spoke to Florida Bulldog anonymously to protect clients. Translation: The mandates are doomed.
Tanenbaum wrote an opinion that attacks an Alachua County masking order directed at businesses. Also, a three-judge panel including Tanenbaum threatened the career of Daniel Uhlfelder, a Panhandle lawyer who suggested in court papers that Gov. Ron DeSantis is risking lives for political gain.
Uhlfelder became widely known for stalking Florida beaches dressed as the Grim Reaper starting in May 2020, calling attention to what he considers DeSantis’s anemic pandemic response. Remove Ron is the name of his political action committee.
In March 2020 Uhlfelder had sued for an emergency order forcing the governor “to comply with his most basic constitutional duties to protect the health and welfare of Florida’s citizens.”
When his lawsuit reached the First District early this year, the court tossed the “frivolous” filing and referred him to the Florida Bar for punishment. A panel including Tanenbaum also took the extraordinary step of ordering a county prosecutor to charge Uhlfelder with criminal contempt.
JUSTICE LEWIS FOR THE DEFENSE
The panel even chided him for forcing DeSantis to defend his actions. By filing a “baseless” appeal, he “improperly consumed this court’s resources as well as those of the Governor and his staff,” the order says. To date nothing has come of the disciplinary proceeding or the criminal contempt charge.
Earlier this month retired Florida Supreme Court Justice R. Fred Lewis defended Uhlfelder with an affidavit.
“A citizen is being punished for seeking access to our Courts. This attempted punishment can be viewed as nothing less than as reprisal for his expression and is simply wrong,” Lewis wrote.
“The Florida Bar should not discipline a critic of the Governor … for calling into question the decisions the Governor has made and the action or inaction about COVID-19,” he wrote.
In a Florida Bulldog interview, Lewis declined to comment on other First District rulings. He cautioned against over-generalizing, saying, “It’s not good if we try to attribute to our judicial officers that because of a decision, there’s always something political about it.”
LAWYER: AYN RAND INFLUENCES JUDGE
Still, when Lewis heard the scornful rhetoric Tanenbaum used in a June 11 opinion, he responded.
“Speaking philosophically, we as jurists need to be very careful of the language that we use. Words mean something, there’s no doubt,” he said. “Jurists need to take heed of this lest we at some other day be required to eat our words.”
Tanenbaum began his June opinion by calling Alachua County’s masking rule “a yoke,” a product of government by “fiat” and a “diktat,” an unpopular edict from on high. He never acknowledges why a masking rule might be necessary: There’s a killer pandemic on the loose.
Instead of focusing on science and public health, the Tanenbaum opinion highlights the right to privacy and self-determination. The court ruled 2-1 in favor of a Gainesville nursery business owner who challenged his county’s mask mandate; the judges flagged their opinion for Florida Supreme Court review.
“He strikes me as that guy who insists on having a 2 a.m. conversation in a college dorm room about Ayn Rand and ‘The Fountainhead,’ “ the lawyer who appears in the First District said. “He never got over that.”
FIRST DISTRICT PATH TO HIGHEST COURT
Tanenbaum crafted a weak legal argument for a gratuitous opinion, according to the First District practitioner. Because DeSantis had already ordered all Florida counties to stop requiring masking in public places, the controversy was over, the lawyer said.
“They just can’t contain themselves,” the lawyer said. “It’s not a matter that needs to be decided in a court, it’s moot, but he [Tanenbaum] couldn’t stand the idea that he wasn’t gonna have a chance to express his libertarian point of view about privacy.”
The First District is the most prominent of the state’s second-tier appellate courts, a step below the Florida Supreme Court. Because it sits in the state capital, the 15 judges decide many weighty constitutional and administrative issues.
Ambitious First District judges know their career path will lead to the top of the state court hierarchy if the governor calls their name.
“They’re all measuring the drapes for their new offices at the Florida Supreme Court,” the insider said. The lawyer suggested First District judges may be inclined to regard politically charged cases as tryouts.
A FEDERALIST SOCIETY MAJORITY
DeSantis and the two Republican governors before him have sent conservatives to the First District and the Supreme Court. One badge of belonging is affiliation with the Federalist Society, a rightist think tank DeSantis uses to screen judicial candidates.
Eight of the First District’s 15 members are publicly associated with the Federalist Society. Chief Judge Lori Rowe and Judge Thomas Winokur have been described as active members of the group’s Tallahassee lawyers’ chapter.
Some of the judges have impeccable GOP credentials. Tanenbaum was general counsel to Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran before DeSantis tapped him for the First District in October 2019. He had no judicial experience.
Lewis, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, said that at times during his 21 years on the Supreme Court, he had to set aside his own beliefs to rule as the law required–because that’s what judges must do.
“It gives me sleepless nights still,” Lewis said. “I felt horribly as I was writing it and every time I put pen to paper that was the legal result, that’s what it was.
“That brought me back to ground,” he said. “Had I done something different, I would not be following the rule of law and that would make me an outlier.”
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Joanne Oyen / September 22, 2021 9:23 am
Look at the spelling on the sign the girl in the grey T shirt is holding. That says a lot right there.
E Hamel / September 22, 2021 9:35 am
Crooked Florida. ruled by Good ole boys
Jim Jusjim / September 22, 2021 11:04 am
I had a pretty bitter encounter with the 1st DCA many years ago, when they PCA’d (after oral arguments) a circuit court ruling that was absolutely, blatantly contrary to Florida Supreme Court rulings and statute since the dawn of time. The Florida Supreme Court had reaffirmed those rulings supportive of my position, in very clear and simple terms, only a month or two before my DCA ruling came down, in its review of identical issues in a case out of the 2d DCA. Worse was that one of the judges on my panel had been a dissenter in the one single earlier 1st DCA case (also a patently errant outcome that apparantly was never appealed to the state supreme court) that the circuit judge had used as justification for his order in my case. After that, I lost all confidence in appeals to that court. Clearly, I wasn’t overreacting. But this kind of baseless political vindictiveness from a DCA judge still shocks.
Vernon Hadley / September 22, 2021 2:07 pm
Exactly twice the amount of people that died from covid died of heart disease. 690,000 people. That is more than covid has killed in 2 years in the US. Regardless, heart disease, which is directly related to obesity, seems to not be an issue for employers, politicians, or the media. Average wait gain during the pandemic across the use was 29 pounds. Child morbid obesity is increasing daily. And, the top linked comorbidities linked to covid deaths are obesity related. Obesity is a known immune system suppressant. Why aren’t we talking about this. Is everyone afraid of being labeled as fat-shaming? Obesity has a huge impact on ERs everywhere with all of the chronic diseases associated with it. A topic well worth discussion.
Bob / September 22, 2021 10:20 pm
You left so much out of the story about Uhlfelder. He’s a douchebag grifter.
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Peeved / November 27, 2021 12:08 am
I am currently embroiled with the First District lower Court and the Appellate Court. This is the most corrupt District, Judges, Discipline oversight agencies, you name it, and they are in it thick as thieves!! I had 4 Judges one case, 3 recused themselves after making such blatant and huge errors, a mediator that threw a sandwich at me and told me to get the F out of her office after trying to bully me into settling, an Attorney who discussed what his clients were paying him, the case itself, sent inappropriate photos, and professed his love all while suing me in a frivolous GARBAGE lawsuit that oh yea, he also admitted to knowing his Clients were lying a disgusting judge who I have a 28 minute audio recording of his abuse, threats condescending remarks, etc… Financial fraud in reports submitted all with 100% indisputable PROOF and I am being tossed around the “cage” as a Pro Se by the good ole boys, and the Bar, The JQC, the DBPR (All also conveniently right there in good ole Tallahassee as well) didn’t find any of my complaints WITH evidence worthy of reprimand or investigation for 4 years now…. It’s filth and dirt that lays around that district, and I hope one day the residents take back their Courts, and see much needed cleansing of the trash that is the legal system there!!!!!!! HAHA and the Attorney who continued to sue EVEN AFTER learning of his Clients being lying criminals, NOW WORKS FOR THIS UHFELDER or whatever his name is… Sounds like two peas in a pod those two! I have always said if someone even slightly unhinged ever gets a peek behind the curtains of THAT Districts legal puppet show…. They would start an entire anarchy fueled tirade, and take that area back… These Judges are SO comfortable being corrupt, that they say/do exactly what they wish to, and literally laugh about having complaints filed against them… Because they know they have a Good Ole boy or few any any given agency that has their backs! DISGUSTING!
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