Courting Disaster

Judge Cindy Lederman, champion of justice and advocate extraordinaire, bends the rules on the bench

But Hall, Stanley, and others say the judge is obligated to publicly state the reasons she is withdrawing from a case. In Stanley's experience, Lederman has only once made such a public declaration: when Stanley requested it. Hall says he doesn't recall any such statements by Lederman about his exclusion from the court. Instead, the lawyers say, the judge simply nixes their appearance.

The first complaints surfaced two years ago. At one point a committee associated with the court even prepared a letter of complaint to Lederman's boss, Chief Judge of the Eleventh Circuit Joseph Farina. But before the missive could be delivered, the committee was disbanded. Committee members (including Stanley) believe Lederman orchestrated the coup.


Lederman says she follows proper procedure when she recuses herself from cases that involve attorney Karl Hall, pictured above; Hall says she simply blacklists him
Steve Satterwhite
Lederman says she follows proper procedure when she recuses herself from cases that involve attorney Karl Hall, pictured above; Hall says she simply blacklists him
Lederman says she follows proper procedure when she recuses herself from cases that involve attorney Karl Hall, pictured above; Hall says she simply blacklists him
Steve Satterwhite
Lederman says she follows proper procedure when she recuses herself from cases that involve attorney Karl Hall, pictured above; Hall says she simply blacklists him

At five feet three inches tall, Cindy Lederman appears unlikely to inspire fear in anyone. But her diminutive size conceals a formidable, even fierce, intelligence.

Lederman has been a government lawyer for nearly her entire career. Although such experience could dull a less-ambitious mind, she has thrived. During the past 21 years she has honed savvy political instincts and networking skills to become one of the most well-known judges in Miami. Her rise has prompted the Miami Heraldand the Miami Daily Business Review to write many adulatory articles, from which much of the following chronology was assembled.

She grew up Cindy Shellenberger in Philadelphia, but left the City of Brotherly Love behind in the 1970s to attend the University of Florida in Gainesville. She graduated and enrolled at the University of Miami Law School. She married Robert Lederman in 1976, then graduated from UM in 1979. After a couple of years in private practice, she took a job as an assistant city attorney in North Miami Beach. "She was a general all-around good advocate," recalls North Miami Beach city attorney Howard Lenard. "She was very dedicated to what she was doing, and she worked very hard." Asked what made her stand out, Lenard reiterated; "She was just a very hard worker."

She also pursued extracurricular résumé builders. In 1985 she won a spot on the Dade County Commission on the Status of Women. That same year she was elected vice president of the local chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers. (She eventually became president.) In 1988 she was elected as a county court judge after running unopposed. She was 34 years old at the time.

In the 1990s Lederman joined the fight against spousal and child abuse. In 1992 she helped craft a new court designed to handle misdemeanor cases of domestic violence, focusing on treatment and strict monitoring. In 1994 the U.S. Information Agency invited her to tour Italy and lecture on family violence and women's rights. Even her detractors admit she has been a tireless advocate for women and children. It made perfect sense when then-Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed her in 1994 to fill a vacancy as a circuit court judge. Lederman requested to serve in the juvenile division.

Almost immediately she had a national case on her hands. In 1995 Lederman terminated a mother's right to raise her infant daughter, and granted custody to the woman's cousins, who wanted to adopt the child. Previously the state placed the child with a foster mother, Kathryn Reiter, a former Bay Harbor Islands councilwoman. Reiter protested the adoption. The Baby J case exploded in headlines around the nation in March of that year, when Reiter fled with the baby. After 25 days on the lam, Reiter surrendered. During the final hearing on the case, Lederman showed her stern hand by warning Reiter and her attorney George Metcalfe they had no legal standing in the case and could not speak, according to an August 1995 Herald article. When Reiter cried out that the judge did not have all the facts, guards hauled her from the courtroom. Metcalfe protested, but Lederman warned that he would also be removed if he continued talking. Metcalfe wrote a letter expressing his displeasure. Some say his defiance later cost him. (Metcalfe says he is unsure whether he ever suffered retaliation from Lederman.)

"She has a healthy intolerance for a bureaucratic system that often grinds on," says one former Department of Children and Families (DCF) lawyer who has worked with Lederman and requested anonymity. "Unfortunately [that attitude] spills into her case-by-case dealings."

Adds another: "She's assertive and efficient but also disrespectful and condescending. It's often inappropriate."

In 1998 Judge Farina appointed Lederman as the administrative judge of juvenile court. The take-no-crap reputation she cultivated as a jurist would not be tolerated in her role as administrator.


In a bit of poetic justice, the system Lederman allegedly subverts was put in place five years ago as a corrective measure following one of the most notorious scandals to hit the Miami-Dade court system.

In 1991 the FBI concluded a massive sting on courthouse corruption known as Operation Court Broom. By its end three former judges, one retired judge, and eleven lawyers had pleaded or been convicted of various misdeeds. With the help of an informant, federal agents used marked $100 bills to prove some judges could be bribed to assign cases to lawyers, return seized property, and order evidence suppressed. The last defendant in the case, former Judge Alfonso Sepe, pleaded guilty to racketeering only this month. The delay occurred after he was acquitted of 29 counts in his original 1993 trial and then retried on five remaining counts.

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