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."

Not only did Judge Knight stay in the race, but a third challenger, Jennifer Bailey, entered the contest. While Ambrose trumpeted Knight's DUI arrest, he came under fire for soliciting support from people without informing them that he had an opponent. Eight of his endorsements were withdrawn and he was eventually reprimanded by the Florida Supreme Court. Then came the results of the annual bar poll, a survey of local lawyers conducted by the Florida Bar. Eighty-one percent of the attorneys who ventured an opinion about Ambrose ranked him as "unqualified."

The Miami Herald delivered the final blow. "'Marcus Ambrose attacks the legal system and his opponent in toto,'" he says, quoting the editorial from memory. "'One shudders to think what such vehemence would be like in judicial robes.' Can you believe that?" He stubs out a cigarette viciously, a fleck of ash rising from the ashtray and settling on his forehead. "Needless to say, I lost." He pulled 23 percent of the vote, and Bailey defeated Knight in a runoff.

Ambrose's next move was obvious. At least to Ambrose. "I felt someone needed to run against Steve Clark for [county] mayor," he recalls. "I urged Xavier Suarez to run. I even offered him my political apparatus. But he wasn't interested. So I tested the waters. People said, 'You would have made a great judge. You'll make a great mayor.'" In the blink of an eye, the Ambrose for Judge bus signs were hastily altered to read Ambrose for Mayor. Though the race was supplanted by the new Metro Commission system, the brief run vaulted Ambrose from the status of would-be reformist to political punch line.

He remains indignant about the 1992 race, an anger that triggers in him the tendency to refer to himself in the third person. ("Did Marcus Ambrose take the loss personally? No, Marcus Ambrose did not!")

He pulls the Jeep up to the site of his next appearance, Aventura's Point East condo. He turns to the security guard, a pot-bellied man with a bulldog jaw. "Hi! I'm here for the candidates' forum," he says. "Do you vote, sir?"

The bulldog says nothing.
"Well, I'd like you to have this." Ambrose holds out a pamphlet.
The bulldog stares menacingly.
"You do vote, don't you, sir?" Ambrose repeats.
The bulldog turns away.

Ambrose sticks his head out the window. "You can always get an absentee ballot!" he yells. "Hey, which way is the ballroom?"

He finds the ballroom just in time to hear his name called. He whisks to the front of the room, and tumbles into his spiel.

"What, no applause? I mean, wake up! I know it's been a long day folks, but c'mon." The assembled Jewish seniors, perhaps under the impression that Ambrose is a warmup act imported from the Catskills, clap. "All right, my name is Marcus Ambrose. You see me on the back of the buses. Yes, that's me! Do you wave when you see me, or what? Tomorrow I want you to wave and I'll try to wave back. Visual advertising is great, but you probably want to know something about me. Hopefully, my assistant Laurie Heller gave you some literature about me as you entered. She's a lot prettier than me, wouldn't you all agree? Isn't she beautiful?" He leads a round of applause for Heller, who turns quietly crimson. I wrote the Blueprint for Justice. I won't bore you with it. If you want a copy, call me. I'm in the book. All right, if you're concerned about crime, and I think we all are, that's the reason I'm running again. I will be a fair judge but I'm not going to accept plea bargains for violent criminals. Do you agree? Okay, vote for me, Marcus Ambrose, September 8. Thank you. Zie gazunt."

Ambrose's opponent, incumbent Martin Kahn, speaks next.
His entire speech: "Please ask your lawyers who to vote for. I think they will give you good recommendations."

It turns out to be a long night at Point East; nearly every judicial candidate on the ballot speaks.

What do they talk about? Not much. Rules governing judicial races forbid candidates from discussing anything remotely political (gun control, say, or the death penalty) for fear these opinions might lead to bias on the bench. This leaves candidates with a rather narrow platform. Most wind up groping for a gimmick that will help them be remembered.

County court hopeful Ed Newman discusses his thirteen years as a Miami Dolphin lineman.

His opponent Phillip Brutus -- who Newman's wife politely refers to as "that Haitian monster from Hell" -- opens with a dorky joke. "If you want to remember my name, just think of Julius Caesar. The only thing is, I wasn't there and I didn't kill the guy."

Ameli Padron-Fragetta, eyeing another county court spot, draws chuckles with the slogan, "Don't forget-a Padron-Fragetta."

S. Peter Capua, incumbent circuit court judge, reminisces about his days playing clarinet with the Glenn Miller Band.

Alex Ferrer, one of Capua's two challengers, points out that he used to be a cop who patrolled that very neighborhood.

Whenever possible, candidates allude to their Judaism.
The crowd remains attentive.
They are waiting for the raffle.

As the last candidate finishes, the president of the condo begins hollering numbers. The seniors strain to read their yellow tickets. "That's you, Pearl!" one screams, poking her neighbor in the kidney. Pearl, who had been peacefully dozing, totters to a small table upon which the candidates have laid gifts. She selects a bottle of Lancers wine and very nearly falls on her way out. "My damn leg's asleep," she mutters.

The candidates, offered the chance to lobby real live voters, circle hungrily, striking at exposed greyhairs.

"Yes, 'I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.' You remember that tune, don't you?" Capua asks one.

"I blocked for Larry Csonka," Newman informs another.
As the last item disappears from the table, the candidates mass at the door, forming a gauntlet of blinding smiles and glossy brochures. The oldsters fall into formation and plunge toward the exit, banking on security in numbers. One elderly gentleman, unaware that the raffle has ended, looks up with panic in his eyes. He has been separated from the pack.

Before he can move, Ameli Padron-Fragetta spots him. As she advances, he points helplessly to his hearing aid. Padron-Fragetta waves off the bluff, anchors her chubby frame between him and the door, and slips a placard into the man's hand.

"Don't forget-a Padron-Fragetta!" she shouts into his ear.
Some candidates promise you tough sentences. We promise you blowjobs.
A scrawled on the back of a campaign flyer two days later the judicial hopefuls are milling in the lobby of yet another tacky ballroom in yet another northeast Dade condo. Low men on the totem pole of public interest, they must wait for the candidates for political office to finish. But the lobby is so small they keep running into each other, then apologize profusely.

Somebody asks Andy Hague about his motorcade. "It was kind of a fluke," says the pudgy prosecutor, one of four candidates running for an open county court seat. "Remember the Night Out Against Crime? Well, I guess I was the only candidate to attend. And I brought my truck, you know, the one with my signs all over it. So what happened was, the cops formed a convoy and I got in about ten from the front and we cruised around all over town, just me in my truck and all those cops." The other candidates coo admiration.

They have been waiting since 7:30 p.m. It is now 9:00. "They're almost done with the North Miami Beach council candidates," Susan Weiner announces brightly. A sweet, droopy woman whose glasses appear constantly on the verge of falling off, Weiner is the doyenne of the northeast. She's the one you hire if you want entree to what some consultants derisively refer to as alterkackers A the large bloc of voters otherwise known as Old Jews in Condos.

The conversation turns to brochures and the candidates begin appraising one another's handouts like kids with marbles.

A typical exchange:
"How much did those suckers cost you?"
"Five hundred dollars for 2000."
"They union-made?"
"I don't think so."
"I see. I hope you didn't get the AFL-CIO endorsement."
The discourse is interrupted by a loud bang that rattles the lobby.
"Jesus!" cries Ed Newman, the former Dolphin. "What was that? A bomb?"

"No," says Jeffrey Swartz, a county court hopeful. "Some guy just walked into the fucking window."

The candidates gather before the full-length pane.
"He must not have realized there was a window there," Hague ventures.
"Is that him lying down by the bottom of the stairs?" asks the terminally dapper Stan Blake, a suitor for circuit court.

"You think that's worth a personal-injury suit?" Swartz wonders.
It is now 10:00 p.m. Condo residents continue to dribble out of the ballroom. Swartz checks his watch. Like the rest of the candidates, he wants to go. But having stuck it out this long, he can not quite tear himself away.

Then word comes from Weiner that candidates will not be allowed to speak. They will merely be introduced. Swartz huffs. Because his race is the last listed on the ballot, he is in the unenviable position of being the final speaker most nights. He stares at a swimming pool below, which radiates a tranquil aqua light.

"I'm getting nothing out of this shit," he mutters, pressing his temples. "I promised my kids I was going to see them tonight. Just once this week. What in God's name am I still doing here?"

Half an hour later Swartz is waiting to be introduced to the nine voters still in attendance, most of whom are feverishly consuming the promised late-night snack, ice-cream sandwiches.

All this hubbub over nine votes in a countywide election?
The routine, repeated every day for the two months leading up to election day, is not really about votes. It's about granting candidates the illusion that they are engaged in a campaign rather than a popularity contest.

Winning the election is a grubby business best left to the public-relations guys. Actually it's better to call them "consultants"; they do very little relating to the public.

Of course most of the public couldn't care less about judicial elections. Of Dade's nearly two million residents, fewer than one-third are registered voters. Of these, only a fraction (100,000 to 200,000, according to recent election returns) cast votes in judicial elections. Most voters wouldn't know of the elections at all, were it not for the crop of signs that infests the county's vacant lots every two years.

A consultant's primary job is not to consult with the candidate regarding issues (what issues?) or to deal with the media (what media?), but to consult with other consultants in the hope of ensuring that his own candidates avoid drawing opponents.

This is facilitated by the dearth of lawyers willing to subject themselves to the embarrassment and expense of an election. This year, for instance, only 17 of 47 judicial seats are being contested. The other 30 candidates, most of whom are incumbents, got a free ride.

Consultants spent the weeks preceding the July 22 filing deadline lobbying potential opponents not to run against their clients. The lobbying reaches fever pitch on the final day, when dozens of candidates and handlers jam the election offices here and in Tallahassee, hoping to intercept last-second challengers and cajole them into other races.

Leverage usually has nothing to do with judicial abilities or endorsements. More likely it involves a candidate's name (is it short, sweet, and ethnically identifiable?), gender (women have thumped men in 24 of 26 recent head-to-head races), and fundraising abilities (can they fill the war chest?).

"Money's the number-one factor," declares Phil Hamersmith, a top consultant. "These candidates run around to all these events crowing about how they got the Kendall Federation's endorsement. It's all a bunch of crap. There's only one way to win an election in a county this size: money." Hamersmith charges $20,000 for a judicial race and tells clients they'll need $150,000 to run a "modern" campaign (meaning one based on polling and geared to TV ads and direct-mail flyers). That figure is now widely accepted, and often exceeded. Circuit Judge Amy Steele Donner, for instance, spent more than $500,000 in her 1984 race against Fran Farina. Farina dished out several hundred thousand.

And how do candidates raise the money? They get most of it from fellow lawyers. Sitting judges enjoy a clear advantage in this arena A they can solicit funds directly from lawyers who appear before them.

A conflict of interest? You betcha!
Alan Dimond, a Greenberg Traurig attorney and past president of the Florida Bar, calls the system "inherently corrupt. It's not that justice is bought and sold, but there are nuances."

"It's obviously a conflict," Hamersmith echoes. "Part of the reason lawyers give money to a judge is because they believe that someday down the road they're going to come into that judge's courtroom with a $15 million case and end up getting a better judgment, or at least get treated in a way that makes them look better for their clients."

Many lawyers insist they make contributions only in the interests of keeping able jurists on the bench. Yet every year even the most incompetent judges receive fat contributions.

For candidates who are desperate for any kind of edge and who have no substantive issues or ideologies to debate, the forum is an invitation to nastiness. But because it is considered declasse for candidates to whack at each other directly, consultants generally serve as the designated hitmen. Some hire investigative agencies to dig for dirt about the enemy. Others pitch smear stories to the media. If this fails they simply take out attack ads.

"My guy really hates to go negative," explains Bob Levy, a prominent handler. "But he's getting blasted in the Herald." By "negative," Levy means that his guy, a South Dade lawyer named Gary Canner, will start running attack ads against Ralph Person, the respected black judge who is under investigation by several agencies for accepting loans from lawyers to whom he later awarded casework.

"What's the difference between a bribe and a loan anyway, if you don't repay it?" Levy scoffs. "Nothing." When it comes to financial chicanery, Levy is qualified to comment. He served more than two years in federal prison in the early 1970s for economic crimes.

Appropriately, most handlers are themselves in a constant state of war. Veteran flack Gerald Schwartz is forever reminding whoever will listen that Bob Levy is an ex-con. Several years ago, he sued Hamersmith for defamation of character after Hamersmith was quoted in the newspaper expressing his fervent hope that Schwartz would suffer "his third and final heart attack."

There is one topic upon which all the consultants concur: Judicial elections should be scrapped.

"The silliest system in politics," Hamersmith declares.
"An outrage," seconds Bob Levy.
Even Schwartz, once the staunchest defender of the procedure, concedes the elections are "a demeaning process that has become nauseating."

These opinions come from those who stand to benefit most from judicial elections. They are mild in comparison to the views held by most judges and lawyers.

So why do we elect judges in the first place?
The framers of the Constitution never intended that judges be subjected to the vagaries of politics. They established a process of lifetime appointment based on merit that specifically isolates judges from outside influence, a system still used in the federal judiciary. Judicial elections at the state level came into vogue with Andrew Jackson, whose populist notions bred the widespread belief that all public officials should be subject to the will of the electorate. Beginning in the 1830s, states adopted the elective model.

Over the years, as it has dawned on lawmakers that judges should be responsible ultimately to the law, and not the public, a number of states have reverted to a system of appointments. Most use a plan called merit selection and retention, which requires potential judges to be screened by a nominating committee, then appointed by the governor. After a judge's first term (four years for county judges, six for circuit in Florida), the public gets the opportunity to boot him or her out of office via a direct yes/no vote.

Not one of the 30 states that has abandoned elections in favor of merit appointments has ever gone back.

In Florida, such a move would require a constitutional amendment approved by a majority of voters. In 1976 the public okayed appointment for appellate judges. Two years later we were given the opportunity to eliminate county and circuit court elections. But the measure was listed on the same ballot as a slate of unpopular proposals, and it lost by 37,000 votes in statewide balloting of 2.15 million.

Every imaginable advocate -- from the American Bar Association to the Florida Bar to the League of Women Voters to Gov. Lawton Chiles -- endorses merit selection. The legislature has commissioned a handful of studies on the subject, all of which concur. The plan, however, has never gained momentum in Tallahassee. Since 1978, of the dozen bills introduced to eliminate elections, not one has passed both houses.

The reasons are various. Many believe there is not sufficient money, or political capital, at stake. "Legislatures look at it as a nonissue in terms of votes," says consultant Levy, who lobbies in Tallahassee.

"Legislators from rural districts and the condo areas actually favor elections," says John Cosgrove (D-South Dade), state representative and a strident advocate of merit selection. "Their constituents like judges to come beg for votes."

Virtually no one, though, still defends elections on their merits. History has hollowed the old arguments:

Voters should have the right to elect judges. How can they when only 17 of this season's 47 races are contested, and when less than 10 percent of Dade's population vote in these?

Elections produce good judges. Wrong. Judicial records indicate that 90 percent of the judges disciplined in Florida in the past three decades were originally elected. Every single judge kicked out of office since 1966 was originally elected. Actually, because appointments are made when a seat opens between elections, the strongest candidates generally apply for these positions to avoid the nightmare of elections. The appointment process, as a result, draws from a larger and more talented pool of hopefuls who are judged on their merits. They are more respected by lawyers than their elected brethren, and score higher in the bar poll.

Elections weed out poor judges. The all-time doozy. Consider Judge S. Peter Capua. His allies are fond of pointing out what a nice guy Capua is. They also sigh frequently and note how difficult this election season has been for him, what with his wife in the hospital and all. They are less eager to point out why Capua should be re-elected.

His bar-poll ratings are consistently abysmal. Though he was appointed seven years ago, he was reprimanded the following year by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the agency that oversees judges' ethical conduct. He allegedly ordered a shift commander at the Dade County Jail to release his son -- who had been arrested for breaking into his girlfriend's apartment and striking her -- without a bond hearing. The JQC also cited Capua for numerous financial improprieties relating to his practice as a lawyer.

Capua concedes these issues might account for the two opponents he has drawn. But he remains confident he will prevail. He has, like other challenged incumbents, taken his entire month of paid vacation to campaign. He has rented a campaign office on Coral Way. And he has been holding fundraisers since October. Some 600 attorneys have coughed up the lion's share of his $85,000.

Other points in his favor, as enumerated by Capua in an interview for this story:

He has been working since he was nine years old.
He was raised in the Bronx.
He has an excellent record on appeals of his rulings.
He has sentenced a man to the death penalty.

"I want to conclude by saying one more thing, because this is important," he stresses. The judge pauses. "Um, I seem to have forgotten what I was going to say."

Wedged into a tan suit, hair combed over his skull in spaghetti strands, candidate Ron Smith does not look happy.

Running for circuit court against Judge Michael Chavies (one of Dade's six incumbent black judges), Smith has just mounted the platform to speak at a B'Nai B'rith Bench and Bar Unit candidate's forum at the downtown Marriott. The dinner, considered a cut above the standard condo cameos, has attracted a gaggle of sitting judges, plus other dignitaries from the world of judicial politics, a world whose Jewish population figures prominently.

Smith wraps the microphone in a meaty fist. The beginning of his speech consists primarily of mumbles and coughs. Presently, he pauses.

"And I would just like to say, because it's very important, that a judge must uphold the highest standards in regard to respect for the law. That is why it is regrettable for me to say that what Michael Chavies has done as a lawyer is reprehensible. Michael Chavies was present at a cocaine sale twice. Neither the first nor the second time did Chavies object, leave the room, call the police, or attempt to stop the sale --"

The boos begin, first one, then another, until the whole room is booing.
Most of those present have heard the allegation before. According to Chavies, Smith's campaign had already tried to blackmail him by threatening to expose the 1976 incident if he didn't get out of the race. Chavies says he ignored the threat. Smith held a press conference. The Miami Herald researched the matter but refused to run a story. On the campaign trail, the ploy has been widely considered to be a dip into gutter politics; the distinguished booers obviously concur.

Realizing the extent of the misplay but unable to derail himself, Smith barrels through the rest of his presentation, inaudible but determined. He skulks back to his seat, looking as ashen and irritable as the villain in a silent movie.

Smith does not look any happier as he trundles across the lobby of the Marriott an hour later.

"Ron, how could you have said all that?" asks Victoria Platzer, a candidate for circuit judge.

"I believe in truth, justice, and the American way," Smith shoots back. "That may sound corny but that's what I believe. All right?"

Not wanting to provoke a man who appears patriotic to the point of violence, Platzer veers off to the garage. She has her own faux pas to worry about.

That very evening she opened a speech by announcing, "Hi, my name is Victoria Platzer, and in keeping with the other candidates I'd like to introduce my surrogate spouse Marlene Reiss, who helps at all my functions." Here Platzer pointed to her friend, and the crowd tittered in confusion. "Anyway, someone told me the best way to relieve my nervousness was to imagine everyone in the room naked. But I think I would find that a little distracting." As if to illustrate the point, Platzer dropped the mike, which hit the lectern with an amplified thud. "Sorry, I guess I don't know how to hold a microphone. I'm not a politician. But I do need your support. Thank you."

The applause had been polite (certainly no one booed) but untrue rumors about Platzer's new strategy ("So she's playing the lesbian card, huh?") are already beginning to make the rounds. (Ironically, the only other Victoria running this year, Victoria Sigler, is openly gay. She drew no opponent and automatically won a county court seat.)

Platzer, a divorced mother of two who put herself through law school while working as a Miami Beach cop, tries to remain philosophical. "It's been that kind of a campaign," she remarks.

Indeed. Platzer did not apply for a seat, figuring the appointment system was "a good-old-boys network," and this campaign has been an assault on her naivete. She says she decided to run simply because she felt she would be a better circuit judge than her opponent, Loree Schwartz Feiler, an incumbent in county court who is giving up her seat to run for circuit judge. Platzer based this on her foe's poor bar-poll ratings, her dismal record on appeals, and her judicial demeanor -- Schwartz Feiler is a reputed hothead.

A hothead with friends. "I had lawyers calling me up before I'd even filed," Platzer recalls. "Mostly they told me Loree had too much money to take on, which I found offensive. I mean, what's that got to do with being a good judge? One said he was going to send a letter to every member of his temple to make sure I didn't get elected. And this was a guy whose kids used to play with my kids!"

In Schwartz Feiler, a well-funded Jewish woman, Platzer could hardly have chosen a more imposing foe. The county judge's campaign coffers hold $142,500. She has two consultants and a fleet of volunteers. Platzer is getting some informal help from Bob Levy but won't be able to pay him. Her campaign kitty totals $3243. She has refused to fund-raise A "I don't want to owe anyone favors" A opting instead to hit the condo circuit. "I'm trying the grassroots approach," Platzer says. "And the net result is I'm referring out all my cases and my kids hate me."

To make matters worse, the Schwartz Feiler camp has filed two complaints against Platzer for election-law violations. The first concerns the wording of her campaign literature, the second a Platzer flyer discovered, in violation of the regulations, posted on a telephone pole. "The basic strategy seems to be to keep me busy responding to these things," Platzer says. It's working. She has had to spend hours correcting her brochures, by hand, with a pen.

Schwartz Feiler claims Platzer is running against her only because a third party, who she won't identify, pushed her. "It's a vendetta," the judge sniffs.

"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.")

Equally amazing to Cooperman is that despite his transgression ("It's a stain on the entire bench what he did!"), Colby has managed a clean sweep of endorsements.

This is less remarkable to impartial observers of the race, who tend to look upon Colby as a talented newcomer who made one mistake, and Cooperman as "that nut running against Colby."

The alleged nut is having none of it. "You don't get a reprimand from the JQC for being overzealous," Cooperman insists. "You have to do something substantially wrong."

He doesn't want his campaign perceived as entirely negative, of course. "I plan to emphasize my positives," he says. "Eighteen years' experience. Community-service things. That kinda stuff."

The Colby reprimand, however, appears to be his best hope. Cooperman's record as a lawyer is hardly distinguished. He survives primarily on court-appointed cases. He has applied for an appointment to the bench three times and has been turned away. He has run for judge twice before and lost.

This time around he decided to be crafty. He positioned himself in a race against another county court judge, Raphael Steinhardt, then jumped into Colby's race at the last possible minute.

Colby, a frightfully earnest young man who looks as if he leapt from the pages of GQ, was crestfallen. He knew his 1993 reprimand made him vulnerable. But he felt his strong bar-poll ratings, and the fact that the State Attorney's Office had cleared him, would keep challengers at bay. He denies Cooperman's charge that he falsified records, and says he was merely trying to unclog the system, invoking state statutes that he thought allowed him to convict no-shows.

"I had him targeted all along!" Cooperman says.
He parks his car, slips on a rumpled blazer and marches inside, passing Colby's Mercedes with a doesn't-it-just-figure expression. Owing to the rain, the turnout is paltry A a dozen voters at best. They are all seated already. Cooperman decides to bite the bullet and pay.

"Better late than never," he announces, stepping into the banquet room of the Hong Kong Harbor restaurant.

"Better never than late in your case," hisses Susan Fried. A sharp-tongued consultant with a mop of hennaed curls and a tan that can only be described as crispy, she is seated with Colby, Loree Schwartz Feiler, and a few other clients.

Cooperman joins Victoria Platzer at the next table. "This feels like enemy territory to me," Platzer murmurs. She spends much of lunch revising her campaign literature with a felt-tip pen.

Cooperman speaks briefly before ceding to guest speaker Henry Ferro, a well-known figure in judicial circles. Six years ago Ferro ran a scathing circuit court campaign against Judge Ted Mastos, and won. He was later investigated by the JQC for allegedly verbally abusing people in his courtroom. He resigned his seat earlier this year and announced he was running for state attorney general.

Ferro's topic of the day: crime.
As the luncheon breaks up, Fried heads into an adjoining room. She is anxious to dish a little dirt on Cooperman. "He wasn't even a practicing attorney for six months last year," she whispers, drawing a sheaf of papers from an envelope. "I hear he's selling life insurance. What a weirdo."

Before she can elicit the dark meaning of these documents, Cooperman appears. Fried scurries away.

"You see the kind of miserable, vicious kind of personality she has," he says. "Maybe I have a thin skin but I went in there with a good heart and what the fuck does she do? She tries to make a fool of me. Lemme tell you another story about her. On the day I filed against Colby, I asked the election people to wait five minutes before they showed anyone, 'cause I didn't want to get bullied. Fried was on me like ham on Swiss. I didn't want to wait for the elevator, so I ran down the stairs and I heard her say, very loudly, 'He's an asshole.' Like some tart on the street. I mean, using such language. Whether I'm an asshole or not is none of the public's business. And I'm not an asshole."

Cooperman is happy, however, to discuss Fried's allegations. "I was listed as nonactive with the Florida Bar last year," he says affably. "The form they send out is so complicated, I didn't realize how much dues were, so I sent in the wrong amount. Isn't that hilarious?"

And the business of selling insurance? "Sure I did that. Why not? As a matter of fact, I wasn't much of a salesman. I was one of my only consumers."

Those issues disposed of, he revisits the Fried issue. "It's tough to have to see people like her," Cooperman admits. "And I wouldn't have to if I wasn't running. But no one's twisting my arm to do this. And let's face it: Being a judge is a cushy job. It is. Condemn. Spare. Condemn. Spare. You always know where your next paycheck is coming from."

The candidate falls silent for a few seconds. Then he asks a question.
"Do you think I'm weird?"
A few days later, at the fancy B'Nai B'rith dinner, Cooperman enjoys a last laugh in absentia. While he has excused himself from the dinner A and the twenty-dollar admission fee A he manages to enlist a representative to address the crowd on his behalf. A short man in spectacles and a beard, Derek Cohen speaks in a brisk British accent.

"My lord, ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you as a resident alien, a stockbroker, and new member of B'Nai B'rith," Cohen announces. "I'm not standing for office. I already have an office, on Brickell Avenue. My qualifications to speak for the candidate Lenny Cooperman is that my dentist is in the same building as he is, and we both work out at the Downtown Athletic Club. He apologizes for not being able to stay tonight, but he has a meeting with an exterminator. I'm not sure if that's a reflection of his views on crime and how to solve it, or what. Finally, I'd like to say to all of you with children that I deal with college planning, so see me if need be."

In the merriment that follows this address, you may find reason enough to vote for Leonard J. Cooperman in the September 8 judicial elections. Or you may find a jolly good reason not to vote at all.

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