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."

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Tristram Korten
Contact: Tristram Korten