Courting Disaster

Unlike Miami's austere courthouses, such as the Flagler Street tower or the fortresslike behemoth on NW Twelfth Street, the sprawling Juvenile Justice Center on NW 27th Avenue has all the dignity of an elementary school. And form speaks to function. In the adult courts, both civil and criminal, grownups suffer the consequences of their actions under the harsh glare of reason. But in the juvenile system, emotion threatens to swamp every minute of every day. In delinquency court, where kids are tried for criminal acts, red-faced parents drag their youngsters before judges who try to determine whether transgressions are the result of youthful ignorance or the first buds of a blossoming life of crime. Across the courtyard in the building's south wing is dependency court, where the state intervenes in the messy emotional life of our most dysfunctional families. It is here that prosecutors argue to terminate a parent's right to raise a child, usually because of alleged abuse or drug use. These cases can last for years, with parents reappearing frequently to defend their actions. The hearings can become a quagmire of competing interests. There are usually three sets of lawyers: the parents', the child's, and the state's. The family portraits that emerge often are more Hieronymus Bosch than Norman Rockwell.

To control a juvenile courtroom, a judge must be decisive and firm. Judge Cindy Lederman, who oversees the place, goes one step further. In the hallways she is known to be downright draconian. Dwarfed by her high-backed chair, Lederman glares through large glasses at defendants and at times barks that they should sit down and shut up. One defendant, who declined to give her name for fear of retribution, recalls Lederman announcing to no one in particular: "I don't like this family. This is a problem family." Indeed Lederman recently threw an eighteen-year-old mother into jail just because the judge suspected the girl had lied about writing a letter to the court. "This judge is incredible; she hates our family," says the girl's mother, Valeria Howard.

To admirers Lederman's certitude is the antidote for the maladies of a system that allows cases to drag on indefinitely. "She really moves things along," says one lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, even though he praised the judge. Her sharp intelligence burns through the twisted emotional lives of families like an acetylene torch clearing a car wreck. Lederman is a nationally renowned lecturer on domestic law and children's rights. She was elected president of the National Association of Women Lawyers. In 1997 the local chapter of the National Association of Jewish Women honored her as a woman of "valor" for her efforts "to defend the rights of children to live in a safe and loving environment."

In 1998 she was appointed administrative judge for the juvenile system, which comprises delinquency and dependency courts, and handles more than 1000 cases per year. Part of her job is to oversee the procedure of appointing lawyers for indigent defendants. By law neither Lederman nor anyone else is supposed to interfere with the assignment of attorneys. The court is required simply to pluck the first available name from a list commonly referred to as "the wheel," because it is more or less a rotation. Established after a notorious corruption scandal that included payoffs to judges to suppress evidence, the system is designed to prohibit judges from selectively meddling in court cases.

Yet at least eight lawyers and court officials who regularly work in dependency court contend Lederman illegally blacklists attorneys from taxpayer-funded cases. Critics believe she rejects those who advocate too aggressively for their clients or successfully challenge her rulings. The claim is corroborated by two years of monthly activity reports on the wheel, minutes from meetings of a committee that considers lawyers' complaints, and the accounts of thirteen others who work at the court. Only five lawyers would allow their names to be used in this story. Others interviewed would talk only on condition of anonymity, largely because of Lederman's reputation for vengefulness.

If Lederman blacklists lawyers, it could be construed as interference in the administration of justice, possibly a violation of the judicial code of conduct. The ultimate victims of such action would be clients who do not receive solid defense. "Everybody's terrified that one day they'll be too aggressive in court in front of her and lose their appointments," says a lawyer who has practiced in juvenile court for more than a decade. "Believe me, when I disagree with her in court, my sentences are filled with, 'respectfully, judge,' and, 'with all due respect, judge,' just to let her know I've got a job to do here. I haven't been blacklisted -- yet."

Adds another counselor, who has practiced in dependency court more than five years: "Personally I have not been blacklisted, but it affects how I do my job. I don't have the freedom to strongly advocate for my client, because I rely on these cases for my livelihood."

"It's a culture of fear," says still another.

Lederman denies blacklisting lawyers or doing anything improper. She acknowledges excluding three lawyers, Virginia Stanley, Karl Hall, and Alberto Batista, from her courtroom during the past two years. But she claims she properly withdraws from cases involving those lawyers. When pressed for the reason, she said only that the defendants in her court deserve the best representation available. "I'm not going to get into negative statements," the judge says. "If I don't appoint Ms. Stanley or Mr. Hall, it's perfectly in accordance with the policies of this court."

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.

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 Herald and 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.

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."

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."

Stanley says the matter goes further. "While the judge does recuse herself if one of my cases happens to come before her, she also definitely blacklists me from wheel cases," she asserts. "She has never appointed me to a case in her [courtroom] since about 1998."

Why would the judge appoint a lawyer to a case from which she'd have to recuse herself? Because she has no choice. If Stanley's name came up on the wheel, Lederman would be obligated to appoint the lawyer to the case and then bow out.

After lawyers complained they were being excluded, committee members asked Paul Indelicato, director of juvenile-court operations, to investigate. Indelicato assured the attorneys no one was losing work; those who were not appointed to cases in Lederman's courtroom made up for it in front of the other two judges in the division. "Individual attorneys concerned about this particular issue approached me, and I assured them that the distribution of cases was being upheld, irrespective of whether they appeared less in one [judge's courtroom]," Indelicato says. Asked whether that meant he was acknowledging blacklisting, Indelicato replies: "That term is not my term. I'm familiar with that term being bandied about by a certain group of lawyers." Then he adds: "I want to be very clear, I have not acknowledged that allegation in any way, shape, or form." He explains he simply pointed out to the lawyers that they were receiving roughly the same number of assignments from the wheel.

During the committee's March 3, 1999, meeting, Stanley broached the subject. "Judge Lederman better do something about this before she reads about it in the papers," she said, according to several people present. Stanley declined to comment about that meeting.

"Yes, she said that," committee member E. Joseph Ryan recalls. "She wasn't the first attorney to say that. The issue [of blacklisting] had been brought up by a lot of attorneys over the preceding year." Ryan, who says he is not blacklisted by the judge, was taking the minutes for the session. He made a note: "Memo to be drafted re: selective appointments by judges." The memo was to be sent to Chief Judge Joseph Farina. A rough draft of the memo reads in part: "Over the past several years, committee members have received repeated complaints that the Administrative Judge, Cindy Lederman, has engaged in a pattern of 'blackballing' and 'handpicking' attorneys. The past several months the committee has been grappling with a means to address this problem."

But on March 9, 1999, before the memo could be sent or the committee could again meet, it was disbanded suddenly and without warning. The order terminating members' tenure was signed by Farina. But as administrative judge, Lederman was in charge of the group. "Nothing happens over there without her okay," one lawyer says. In an April 9 letter, Lederman explained that members' terms had expired. "Additionally it appears that the old committee was unable to function due to lack of a quorum," Lederman added in her note. Several members flatly deny a lack of participation and say Lederman never complained about their work.

Ryan, Stanley, and others believe the dissolution was a direct result of the fact their preparing to raise the issue of blacklisting with Farina. Lederman then appointed a new committee. That group has made no formal statement on blacklisting.

Judge Farina declined to respond to New Times about the alleged blacklisting. But he faxed a statement that reiterated judges are allowed to make off-the-wheel appointments in unique circumstances "with the concurrence of the administrative judge of the juvenile division." Then Farina noted: "The [standing] committee is the proper vehicle through which issues of appointment of attorneys should be addressed."

Anecdotal evidence of Lederman's thin skin abounds. Many who have crossed her in court say they have experienced retaliation.

In late 1998 lawyers with the University of Miami's Children and Youth Law Clinic appealed Lederman's decision to incarcerate a juvenile in a mental-health facility. The appeals court overturned Lederman's ruling. (The court later reversed itself). Shortly thereafter clinic director Bernard Perlmutter says the dean of UM's law school, Mary Doyle, called him into her office. "She said, 'I was just reamed out,'" Perlmutter recalls. "Judge [Lederman] was incensed the court granted this petition. I was told [by Doyle] the judge wanted the university to defund the clinic. I don't have direct knowledge of this; you should really contact Mary Doyle."

Although Perlmutter was under the impression Lederman had called Doyle, in fact it was Senior Judge William Gladstone, the former administrative judge for juvenile court and a Lederman admirer. "I didn't say they should be defunded, not that I recall," Gladstone says. "I read a newspaper article and was very concerned. This child needed help." Lederman, he says, never asked him to make the call. "That would be improper," he remarks.

Doyle, who is working at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., while on sabbatical, declined to comment.

But Lederman isn't beyond making a call herself to criticize her detractors. Last December a brief item appeared in the Miami Herald announcing the Women's Fund of Miami-Dade County gave a grant to the law clinic. Lederman called the fund, according to executive director Claudia Kitchens. "She just wanted to express her concerns about the clinic's approach to handling the legal representation of children," Kitchens says.

Another incident occurred in early 1999, when County Court Judge Wendell Graham was serving as an interim judge in the dependency division. During open court one day, Graham scheduled a case on Lederman's calendar and assigned George Metcalfe (the lawyer who clashed with Lederman during the Baby J case) to handle it, after taking Metcalfe's name from the wheel. Within minutes Graham's clerk received a call, according to two witnesses. The clerk said, "'Judge [Graham], you can't assign Metcalfe to that case,'" one witness recalls, adding that Graham questioned the statement. "[The clerk] told him: 'Because Judge Lederman doesn't get along with him.'" Metcalfe was not appointed.

Graham refused to comment. Metcalfe says he has heard rumors of the incident. "I'm receiving appointments now, so it's a nonissue," he adds.

Lederman responds: "I have no knowledge of this and can't be responsible for someone else's actions. I get along with George Metcalfe."

Lederman's influence was also made clear on February 28, 2000, when Karl Hall says a court clerk called him to confirm that he was no longer taking cases before Lederman. Hall asked for the source of that information. The clerk cited a female DCF prosecutor. "She told the clerk that I didn't take appointments in Lederman's division," Hall says. Incensed, he confronted the prosecutor and her supervisors.

DCF district administrator Charles Auslander acknowledges the exchange took place and says he cautioned the prosecutor. "I think she realizes this was a mistake," he offers. "She was trying to be helpful to the clerk making the appointments. But it's clearly a mistake. The DCF should have nothing to do with the blind appointments on the wheel."

Critics of Cindy Lederman say she is winning. The attorneys she dislikes are leaving. Alberto Batista recently withdrew his name from the wheel. He still practices in juvenile court, taking only private clients.

Virginia Stanley, in many ways the doyenne of juvenile court's defense attorneys, recently announced plans to move to Maine and write books. "I'm getting the hell out of Dodge," she says.

Lederman, meanwhile, faces re-election this November.

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