Lawyers gawked from office windows last month when a BMW S.U.V. swiped a parked police cruiser in the parking lot of a courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, then slammed into a gate over and over again.
A judge was at the wheel. As reported in www.nytimes.com.
As lawyers used smartphones to snap pictures of the morning spectacle, Judge Lynn D. Rosenthal became the third Broward County judge in six months to be arrested on charges of driving under the influence. A colleague, Judge Gisele Pollack, had been suspended five days earlier after getting arrested on a D.U.I. charge while already on leave for taking the bench intoxicated — twice.
Even for South Florida, where absurd news events are routine and the sheriff went to prison for corruption, the spate of judicial scandals has raised serious questions about whether the arrests in Broward are a bizarre coincidence or underscore a larger systemic problem. In a county where the judiciary is known for old-school nepotism and cronyism, and judges have been caught smoking marijuana in a park and found drunk and partly naked in a hotel hallway, some lawyers find themselves wondering: At what point do isolated instances of misconduct point to something bigger?
On Wednesday, WPLG, an ABC affiliate, citing anonymous sources, reported that a Broward family court judge was under federal investigation on suspicion of allowing a now-convicted Ponzi Schemer to influence a case.
And this month, a former judge in Broward was disbarred for exchanging 949 phone calls and 471 text messages with the prosecutor during a death penalty case. Yet another judge was recommended for removal in April after being accused of cheating clients and a co-counsel in the settlement of a civil suit she handled as a private lawyer a decade ago.
As it turns out, bad behavior by judges has become distressingly common across Florida in recent months. Judge John C. Murphy in Brevard County is on leave after he was caught on video this month threatening a public defender, who later accused the judge of punching him in the head. In the Keys, a judge who was replaced on the bench after dozing off told a local news reporter that Ambien made him hallucinate about “ ‘Fantasia’ and the dancing brooms.” Another stepped down because a blogger exposed a sexually explicit profile the judge had posted on a gay dating site.
But Broward — a heavily Democratic county of 1.8 million people with many judges who are the children, spouses, siblings and fraternity brothers of other judges and some of the region’s most powerful people — seems to be ground zero for allegations of judicial misconduct. The system’s critics say that is because Broward has a highly politicized and clannish culture that is known for protecting its own, which has led some in the judiciary to feel invincible, even as they preside over a county court system that produces the state’s highest exoneration rate.
“I do think it belies an underlying systemic problem in Broward County,” said Howard Finkelstein, Broward’s elected public defender. “I don’t think this stunningly embarrassing fact of having all these charges pending at the same time is indicative of a judiciary with substance abuse problems, but I do think it is a manifestation of the greater problem of a circle-the-wagons mentality.”
Records posted online by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the independent agency that investigates misconduct by state judges in Florida’s 67 counties, show that 17 percent of the 62 formal disciplinary cases filed against sitting judges since 2001 have been in Broward.
Those figures do not include two judges who were recently arrested or those who resigned before a case was made public, such as Judge Lawrence L. Korda, who, in 2007, after presiding over parts of the Anna Nicole Smith case, was caught smoking marijuana in a park. (Not to be confused with Larry S. Seidlin, the Broward judge who sobbed on the bench during a nationally televised ruling on where the reality TV star should be buried.)
Many judges accused of wrongdoing remain on the bench, such as the family court judge who took in a foster child who had appeared in his court, only for the teenager to accuse the judge years later of molesting him.
“Tell me one other courthouse that at any time ever had three judges pending criminal charges, a fourth judge disbarred by the Supreme Court and another judge awaiting removal,” Mr. Finkelstein said. “And that doesn’t include the naked judge!”
In 2001, a Broward County judge was arrested on charges of public intoxication after being found drunk and naked from the waist down at a resort that was hosting a state judicial conference. Mr. Finkelstein has been there: A recovering addict, he, too, was once arrested, after using cocaine and crashing into a police car.
William J. Gelin, a defense lawyer in Broward who runs a blog, Jaablaw.com, that chronicles courthouse antics and posted a photo of Judge Rosenthal’s arrest, noted that the Judicial Qualifications Commission only reveals cases that result in misconduct charges. Most complaints against judges remain secret, which he said adds to the perception that judges feel omnipotent.
“It’s time to shine a light on these individuals and their performance, as the founding fathers intended,” Mr. Gelin said.
Michael L. Schneider, executive director and general counsel of the commission, acknowledged that the recent run of Broward judges being arrested is unusual, but that the agency dealt with cases “one at a time” and not systemically.
“The commission isn’t a punishment group,” he said. “It’s designed to evaluate fitness of somebody to be a judge.”
Broward’s chief judge, Peter M. Weinstein, said the rash of arrests was an “anomaly” that did not reflect the hard work judges do every day at the courthouse.
“It’s a big court system — we have 103 people making decisions every single day,” Judge Weinstein said. “Over all, we have excellent judges, and nobody ever reads or hears anything about them.”
A lawyer for Judge Rosenthal, Brian Y. Silber, declined to comment.
Two of the arrested judges refused a Breathalyzer test, but the test conducted on Judge Rosenthal showed that she had not been drinking. She told the police that she had taken Ambien the night before, but after failing a field sobriety test, she refused to take urine or blood tests, according to the police report. The police, suspecting that she was impaired by drugs, charged her with D.U.I.
Judge Pollack was suspended without pay, despite a request from her lawyer, J. David Bogenschutz, that her alcoholism be considered a disability. She has sought treatment and hopes to return to the bench, Mr. Bogenschutz said.
“Where a judge has the same problem 5,000 other people have, it makes news,” he said. “They are not supposed to have human feelings and human failings.”
Mr. Bogenschutz, who has represented dozens of Florida judges, recently married one of his clients. His wife, Ana Gardiner, is the former Broward judge who was disbarred by the Florida Supreme Court this month for lying about an “emotional relationship” with a prosecutor during a 2007 case. (The defendant was granted a new trial and is now serving a life sentence instead of being on death row, as Ms. Gardiner had ruled.)
“You shouldn’t get special treatment because you’re a judge, and you shouldn’t be treated more harshly if you are a judge,” said Marc Shiner, who represents Judge Cynthia G. Imperato, who was arrested in November for driving under the influence. “They are trying to make an example out of her.”