Courting Disaster

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

As a result of Court Broom, Leonard Rivkind, the former chief judge of the eleventh judicial circuit, ordered the creation of committees to explore ways to safeguard against such abuses. In juvenile court a team of experts (including allegedly blacklisted lawyer Stanley) studied the issue. The result was administrative order 94-27, establishing a system to blindly assign private lawyers in publicly funded cases.

Dependency court employs a lot of private attorneys. One reason is that the Office of Family Reunification, the equivalent of the Public Defender's Office, only handles the simplest lawsuits. Private attorneys are called on to handle more complex litigation. And when OFR takes a case, it can only represent one of the three parties that are usually involved; sometimes the father, mother, and child all need their own counsel.

When someone can't afford an attorney, and the OFR cannot handle the case, a court clerk consults the wheel, a list of roughly 95 barristers. The clerk calls the lawyer at the top of list. Once that name has been called, it goes to the bottom. Only under rare circumstances is the lawyer at the top to be skipped. According to the administrative order: "In the event that the court determines that unique requirements exist in a particular case which the attorney selected cannot satisfy, the court, with the concurrence of the administrative judge of the juvenile division, may appoint another attorney."

Virginia Stanley, who helped design the system that requires random selection of lawyers, says  she's blacklisted
Steve Satterwhite
Virginia Stanley, who helped design the system that requires random selection of lawyers, says she's blacklisted
E. Joseph Ryan was a member of the standing committee in 1998, when several lawyers complained about Lederman
Steve Satterwhite
E. Joseph Ryan was a member of the standing committee in 1998, when several lawyers complained about Lederman

To ensure that the wheel remains fair and impartial, the court established the Juvenile Court Dependency Standing Committee in 1994. It was to include seven attorneys who monitor the system's fairness. The committee was to certify that lawyers had sufficient experience in juvenile court. It also was to review payment when lawyers' bills topped $500. And finally, the committee was to hear complaints about lawyers and judges.

Karl Hall is a sandy-haired man with a predilection for blue blazers and chinos. But his prep school image blurs the fact that he's worked in juvenile court for ten years, first as a prosecutor for the state, then, beginning in 1997, as a defense lawyer. He contends that while in private practice, he has never been appointed to a case by Judge Cindy Lederman, a statistical impossibility if the system is being correctly managed.

"It's common knowledge in the juvenile-court building that there are a number of attorneys who are blacklisted, including myself," Hall says. "The blind appointment system is designed to ensure the judiciary doesn't interfere with the right to counsel by selectively picking attorneys to handle certain cases.... Even my five-year-old daughter understands that concept."

Alberto Batista, a stout lawyer with a bushy black beard and an eccentric demeanor, has practiced in juvenile court since the late 1980s. Like Hall, he says Lederman has blacklisted him. "Judge Lederman has violated the whole spirit of the administrative order, establishing a blind selection system," says Batista, who complained two years ago about blacklisting by both Lederman and fellow dependency court Judge Jeri Cohen in a letter to Cohen. Lederman promptly filed a bar complaint against him in July 1998 for violating the code of professional responsibility.

When New Times first confronted Lederman with the accusations in early March, her response was, "You've got to understand; what we're dealing with here is the most basic right of parents: to parent their children. Parents who find themselves before this court are entitled to the best representation possible. It's my job and my duty to make sure the best representation is afforded them." When pressed on whether that meant she was blacklisting certain attorneys, she responded, "No, that's clearly not true."

In an interview two weeks later, Lederman again denied the claims. But she acknowledged that she recuses herself from cases involving Hall and Batista, in effect banning those attorneys from her courtroom. She declined to explain her motive. Lederman pointed out that the administrative order gives her discretion to appoint lawyers in some cases without consulting the wheel. New Times then referred to the administrative order, which states a judge can only do this when "unique requirements exist in a particular case that the attorney cannot satisfy." Hall and Batista translate that to mean a hearing is required to disqualify an attorney. "I guess we'll have to differ on our interpretation of the order," Lederman said.

Beginning in 1998 the blacklisting complaints of Hall, Batista, and about eight other lawyers filtered to the Dependency Standing Committee, the group that certifies lawyers for inclusion on the wheel. There they fell upon the receptive ear of committee chairperson Virginia Stanley, a 53-year-old Miami native and highly regarded juvenile-court lawyer. In 1988 Stanley founded the Juvenile Justice Attorney's Association, the equivalent of the bar association for lawyers practicing in juvenile court. She also co-wrote the report recommending the wheel system in the wake of Operation Court Broom.

Stanley says she was well acquainted with the issue of blacklisting.

The antipathy between the two is a matter of public record. In 1996 Stanley successfully forced Lederman to recuse herself from a case because she conferred with opposing counsel when Stanley was not present. Ever since then Lederman has voluntarily removed herself from any case involving Stanley. "That's no rumor," Lederman declares. "It's a matter of public record."

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