Tuesday, May 22, 2007
7 News Investigations: Judging the Judges
It has been a very bad year for Broward County judges who have been accused of everything from smoking pot to making racist comments. And now a 7 News investigation has revealed more questionable activity by several other judges, including a judge that gained notoriety during the Anna Nicole Smith burial trial. Carmel Cafiero has details in this special assignment report -- Judging the Judges.
WSVN -- Judge Larry Seidlin: "The body belongs to this judge."
When the eyes of the world were on Broward County during the Anna Nicole Smith case, Judge Larry Seidlin represented our justice system.
Judge Larry Seidlin: "And I hope to God you guys give the kid the right shot."
He got criticism for drawing the proceedings out, which was a surprise to some, because, around the courthouse, he's known as "Lightning Larry" for how quickly he handles his cases -- and how few hours he works.
And, when we watched the judge April 10th and 11th and April 17th and 18th, Seidlin's lunch breaks lasted close to three hours.
If he worked at all in the afternoons, it was for about one hour
And by four, he was at a tennis club three out of the four days.
Carmel Cafiero: "Hi, Judge Seidlin, Carmel Cafiero, Channel 7. You didn't return my calls, I'd like to talk to you about the hours that you work."
Judge Larry Seidlin: "Nice to see you."
The judge wouldn't respond to my questions about his work hours.
Carmel Cafiero: "Judge Seidlin, don't you think you need to answer these questions?"
Judge Larry Seidlin: "Have a nice day."
Dale Ross is Broward's chief judge.
Judge Dale Ross: "Well, my initial thought is it was unacceptable."
Judge Ross says he questioned Judge Seidlin after 7 News asked about the hours we had seen Seidlin away from the courthouse.
The explanation from Seidlin was he had been sick.
Judge Dale Ross: "And that he was coming in despite the fact that he was ill. He was coming in and running as much of his docket as he could and that he completed his work for the day, and, at that point, he would leave."
Yet, on the days we were watching, Judge Seidlin went to the tennis club and one day met with friends.
The chief judge says he didn't challenge Seidlin's claim of illness but says he is now monitoring Seidlin's workload, something he's never had to do before.
Judge Dale Ross: "But, since then, we've taken remedial efforts."
Carmel Cafiero: "Such as?"
Judge Dale Ross: "Well, monitoring Judge Seidlin's docket on a daily basis."
Ross says he also told Seidlin he expected him to put in more hours at the courthouse.
Judge Dale Ross: "I told him it was unacceptable. That he had to maintain normal business hours, and he assured me that he would do so."
And Seidlin isn't the only judge who may not work a full day.
Sources say several judges disappear at lunch and don't come back, especially on Fridays.
We had a list of several judges, but word got out 7 News was watching.
Carmel Cafiero: "Have you addressed the issue with other judges?"
Judge Dale Ross: "I've addressed the issue, yes, ma'am, and I've addressed the issue on a couple of occasions."
Carmel Cafiero: "And what have you told your judges?"
Judge Dale Ross: "I've told my judges exactly what I've told your listeners -- your viewers, rather -- that I expect folks to work normal hours."
Judge Ross presides over a judiciary in turmoil.
Judge Larry Korda: "Your honor, I would like to apologize."
Judge Larry Korda was arrested for smoking pot in a public park. He is now on a leave of absence.
Judge Robert Diaz was suspended and fined in 2005 for sending anonymous e-mails to fellow judges.
Judge Charles Greene was reassigned after using the term "NHI" -- meaning No Humans Involved -- to describe minority participants in an attempted murder case.
Tom O'Connell represented the defendant.
Tom O'Connell: "NHI, no humans involved is, at best, insensitive -- at worst, racist."
Then there's Judge Leonard Feiner. In 2005 he was criticized for saying courthouse cleaning crews may live in hovels.
And Judge Cheryl Aleman is fighting a complaint of arrogant conduct.
Lawyers tell us there are other problems, and even experienced attorneys have had enough.
Fred Haddad: "A lot of the judges on the bench are embarrassing, going in their courtroom is embarrassing, seeing the way they act towards younger lawyers, and the way they act towards some litigants is embarrassing."
Younger attorneys have taken to the internet and a blog that gives them a chance to speak out.
They say they're afraid to file formal complaints for fear of retaliation.
Sean Conway: "If you're a young lawyer, and you try to voice your concerns, they'll push you around."
But Bill Gelin posts often and publicly on the blog, which he says has provided a valuable forum.
Bill Gelin: "There was grave concern in the community -- the legal community -- that there was a lot of injustice."
Carmel Cafiero: "The verdict is in for 'Judging the Judges,' and one thing is clear: the controversy on both sides of the bench is likely to continue."