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?

"Only a person with a vendetta against me would have put me up to this," Platzer counters.

I love grits and never get a chance to eat them. But that's off the record. No, wait. You can put that on the record.

A circuit court candidate Craig Dearr, on grits
Grits. It's a topic that deserves thoughtful consideration, especially by one who aspires to one of the most powerful roles in our society.

Grits are almost as hot a topic in 1994 as race. But not quite.
This is the year that has finally brought popular attention to still another drawback of the elective system: the proven vulnerability of minority judges. Dade's 102 judges include just eight Hispanics and six blacks. Four of the six blacks are up for re-election. Three are being challenged. The fourth, Judge Wendell Graham, had a challenger for his county court seat until five minutes before the filing deadline. Only a last-ditch gang-lobby by a pack of consultants compelled perennial candidate Al Zemlock to drop his bid.

In a system where electability is everything and diversity and merit count for nothing, blacks are targets for one simple reason: They can be beaten. Their fundraising capabilities and voting base are suspect.

One could argue that Ralph Person, who has embroiled himself in a serious scandal, and A. Leo Adderly, who routinely stinks it up in the bar-poll ratings, were fair game regardless of skin color. But Ron Smith's challenge of Michael Chavies is a battle that has spurred the most pointed claims of racism from black community leaders.

Pity poor Chavies. In August 1992 he was appointed a circuit judge. A month later he lost to an underfunded white candidate named Arthur Taylor. (Ironically, Chavies lost the race in the black precincts, where, based solely on his name, voters assumed Taylor was the black candidate.) Within months Chavies was reappointed to the bench, where he has distinguished himself as an outstanding judge. Then along came Smith.

Smith says he originally decided to oppose Chavies "because he was beaten two years ago." Now he prefers to talk about Chavies's alleged tangential involvement in a drug sale that took place eighteen years ago. Smith, who has loaned his own campaign $300,000, says he plans an ad blitz to publicize the smear.

The targeting of minority judicial candidates has prompted the filing of a federal lawsuit to establish district elections for judges, which would ensure greater minority representation. Legal experts say the suit is likely to succeed, given the current dearth of minority judges. They also agree that district elections would be the worst imaginable way to select judges. "The one public figure who is supposed to be impartial to all political forces would be thrust into the maw of ward politics," says SeymourGelber, an ex-judge who is now mayor of Miami Beach.

"District elections would rip the blindfold off of justice," says Rep. John Cosgrove. "Do you really want to create a Little Havana judge, an Overtown judge? How could you possibly receive a fair trail if you were suing a prominent Kendall businessman in front of the Kendall judge?"

Switching to a system of appointing judges would virtually guarantee a sharp increase in black and Hispanic judges. To wit: 28 of the 39 minority judges presiding in Florida's circuit and county courts were originally appointed; only 11 were elected.

But Cosgrove says the idea of district elections has won support among legislators whose constituencies are based in large urban areas. "You're looking at going from eight Hispanic judges in Dade to fifty. What Hispanic legislator isn't going to back that plan?"

Those who lament the subjugation of our judiciary to racial politics can take cold comfort in the knowledge that Chavies will no doubt be able to run unopposed in a district election.

"Do you know anything about this guy Colby's history? Here's a judge who was reprimanded by the Judicial Qualifications Commission for finding hundreds of DUI defendants who failed to appear in court guilty, without a trial. Now you might say, 'Big fucking deal,' but here's the hook. The State Attorney's Office opened an investigation on him. And why would they be interested? I presume because he was falsifying records. Then he told the Herald he expected to be cleared by the JQC. Then he copped a plea with them. Now, it's not like I want the guy's head chopped off, or his law license revoked, but I think a changing of the guard is in order."

Meet Leonard J. Cooperman, candidate for the county court, would-be changer of the guard.

What is impressive about Cooperman is not just that he can speak approximately 4000 words a minute, but that he can do so while navigating through a downpour in his Mazda en route to a luncheon in North Miami Beach. Not that he plans to actually attend the luncheon. ("I ain't gonna pay twelve bucks just to get in. I'll sit outside and hand out literature, then go somewhere reasonable for lunch.") He just wants to make sure the message gets out about Colby. ("It's amazing to me that nobody [else] challenged this guy.")

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