Odor in the Court

By state law, judges get elected just like politicians -- a system so idiotic it's criminal. Will somebody please reproach the bench?

You don't have to be a legal scholar to pass judgment on our judiciary. You don't even have to be especially alert. In the past four years alone, ten Dade judges have been spanked for breaches of the public trust. There was the judge who took dirty money to fuel a cocaine habit. The judge who verbally abused officers of the court. The judge who got his kid sprung from jail. The judge who stuffed cash bribes down his pants (not to be confused with the judge who stuffed his face with free pasta). And, of course, the judge who (just this past week!) allegedly took her Volvo on a drunken rampage.

This is to say nothing of the judges who rank merely as incompetent, a figure that hovers around ten percent if you believe the attorneys who vote in annual bar polls.

Wondering what can be done about this distressing situation? Your timing couldn't be better. With the county's biannual judicial primary elections slated for next Thursday, September 8, registered voters will be afforded an excellent opportunity to sound the siren for change, to roust slumbering lawmakers, to restore dignity -- perhaps even legality -- to our judiciary. It's simple.

Just step into the voting booth, review the list of wanna-be judges, take a deep, justice-affirming breath, and...

Don't vote.
That's right. Boycott the judicial elections. Skip the whole drill.
Tallahassee, rest assured, will take notice. Even as you read this, a panel of lawyers and judges convened by the legislature is attempting (for the umpteenth time) to persuade lawmakers to scrap the elective system.

As you read the following dispatches from the campaign trail, undoubtedly you will have to remind yourself periodically that the protagonists are aspiring to be judges. Not politicians, who pretty much deserve the disrepute heaped upon them. But judges. People who determine fortunes and fates, sometimes even life and death, with the drop of a gavel. On what basis do we, the citizenry, bestow this power?

Been to the circus recently?
You must think Marcus Ambrose has a crystal ball.
-- Marcus Ambrose on the future

Marcus Ambrose is lost. Lurching his Jeep Laredo around Little Havana in a discouragingly circular pattern, the candidate nonetheless manages to discuss his deeper motivations for wanting to be a judge.

"I realized the legal system was suffering," he says, sucking ardently on a Marlboro Light. "As a lawyer, I found myself helping people less and less. I realized the only way to improve things would be to take the bench myself." When Ambrose filed in July against incumbent Martin Kahn, he joined 24 other candidates vying for seats on the circuit court bench, where judges preside over felonies and major civil lawsuits. (Another thirteen aspirants are running for county court, in which misdemeanors and small claims are resolved.)

Ambrose has two campaign appearances scheduled tonight, though he seems in jeopardy of missing the first, a forum before CAMACOL, the Latin Chamber of Commerce.

"Wait a second, what intersection is this?" he asks accusingly. "Didn't we just pass that gas station?"

After two more passes, Ambrose locates his destination, exits the Jeep, checks his reflection in its window. A smallish man with ice-blue eyes and a prominent nose, he is clad in a dark suit with a pink power tie. To fans of the actor Gene Wilder, the candidate is immediately recognizable: He is Willie Wonka gone corporate. The face should be familiar to most others. For the past two years it has graced the back of myriad county buses.

This is not Ambrose's first race.
Back in 1978, as a young lawyer fresh from Wayne State University, he ran in the Democratic primary against Rep. Claude Pepper. He was trounced. There followed what Ambrose refers to as a "period of political dormancy." In 1992 he filed against Phillip Knight, an elderly circuit judge with a history of problems with alcohol, including a DUI arrest. Up went the bus signs. Ambrose opened a campaign office, hired two full-time staffers and a passel of consultants. He was trounced.

Inside CAMACOL headquarters a dozen judicial candidates line one wall, shiny badges announcing their aspirations. They exude the air of wallflowers, at once hopeful and mortified. Ambrose sidles up to Jonathan Colby, a young county court judge. "Hey, I've seen your bus signs," Ambrose says, which leads to a sober discourse about bus signs versus roadside placards. "Going with the buses was the best money I ever spent," Ambrose assures Colby. "You're all by yourself. Not squished together with a hundred other signs."

Later Ambrose's brief speech is well received. "With your support, I will be a judge the next time I come before you," he declares in fluent Spanish. "And by that time Cuba will be free!"

The chamber members erupt. "Elect him judge already!" shouts CAMACOL president Luis Sabines.

Ambrose floats back to his Jeep. The memory of his 1992 race, however, subdues him. "I had compiled a list of endorsements few could ever hope to equal," he recalls. "I had $200,000 of my own money to spend. I assumed my opponent would have the good sense to realize that his legal career had come to an end."

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