Broward judge criticized by state board as 'arrogant, discourteous, and impatient '
By Paula McMahon
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted February 7 2007
| The state judicial watchdog filed formal charges against Broward Circuit Judge Cheryl Alemán on Tuesday, accusing her of "a pattern of arrogant, discourteous, and impatient conduct."|
Using unusually strong language, the state Judicial Qualifications Commission charged her with violating several canons or rules, and acting in a manner that "erodes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary." If the allegations are proven, Alemán faces anything from a public reprimand to removal from the bench.
Alemán, 48, has been involved in numerous controversies in her five years on the Broward criminal court bench. As the former head of an activist conservative Christian group for lawyers, Alemán was a contentious appointment in December 2001 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. And she alarmed some judges and attorneys when she made religious remarks as she was sworn in a month later.
But the charges filed Tuesday deal with matters of judicial temperament and procedure. They cover alleged misconduct and deal with incidents from 2003 to 2006.
The five charges spring from four cases that were reported in local newspapers and include allegations about Alemán's refusal to release a jail inmate dying of AIDS; her actions in jailing a defense attorney; her treatment of two assistant public defenders, one of whom was the treasurer for Alemán's election challenger; and her actions in cases handled by a private attorney who she had tried to prosecute for contempt of court when she was a statewide prosecutor.
While it is unusual for judges to face misconduct charges , the commission and the Florida Supreme Court have disciplined a handful of Broward judges in recent years. The cases can take weeks or years to resolve.
Alemán's attorney, Dave Bogenschutz, said he would respond to the allegations in the next few weeks. He said he had not been told whether someone filed the complaint or the watchdog agency initiated the investigation.
"I believe there is a great deal of information and witnesses who ... are prepared to go under oath and say that she does not exhibit a pattern of arrogant conduct or discourteous conduct or impatience," Bogenschutz said.
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said Alemán has abdicated her role as judge.
"I think she sees herself as a second prosecutor in the courtroom and when that happens, there is no neutral arbiter in the room," Finkelstein said, adding that his office did not file the complaint against her.Attorney Richard Rosenbaum represents Adam Katz, the attorney who was jailed by the judge. He said he was not surprised the charges were filed because of Alemán's history of conduct. "People are entitled to be treated with respect and here she is acting like a tyrant on the bench," Rosenbaum said.
Last month, Alemán moved to the civil division in what Chief Judge Dale Ross said was a routine reassignment of several judges.
Chronologically, the first allegation concerns her July 2003 handling of the case of the late Jean Felix, a jail inmate who was dying of AIDS. Alemán refused to release Felix despite a joint request from the prosecutor and public defender, and testimony from a healthcare manager at the jail that Felix's medical condition made him more vulnerable to infection and he was at greater risk of dying in jail.
Alemán is accused of making misleading statements in a court order the commission said she appeared to have written in response to a South Florida Sun-Sentinel article about the Felix case. The commission said Alemán defended her ruling by claiming Felix's attorney presented no medical testimony about Felix's condition. The order "conspicuously omits" that the prosecution and defense had stipulated he was dying, ruling out the need for any such testimony, according to the charging document. Ross, known for being a strict judge, later released Felix while Alemán was on vacation. Alemán refused to disqualify herself from handling two cases filed in 2004 involving defense attorney Michael Gottlieb, after he filed court papers detailing their acrimonious history. In the 1990s, then-statewide prosecutor Alemán had filed criminal contempt sanctions against Gottlieb in a case he was defending.
JQC charges also were filed on several issues regarding Alemán's treatment of two public defenders, Sandra Perlman and Bruce Raticoff, in a January 2006 murder trial. Perlman was campaign treasurer for Alemán's political opponent in the 2004 primary and asked the judge to step down from the case. Alemán rejected her requests, threatened to hold the public defenders in contempt and gave them 15-minute deadlines to file court documents, which the JQC said was unreasonable. Alemán also refused to let Perlman delay proceedings for 15 minutes in a routine request so she could handle a previously scheduled plea agreement in another courtroom. Alemán permitted a prosecutor to do the same thing during the case.
And finally, the judge is accused of scheduling a contempt hearing for defense attorney Adam Katz in February 2006, even though she knew he was out of state. She then found him in contempt and sentenced him to 60 days in jail. He spent four days in jail and is still appealing the case and sentence.
The Judicial Qualifications Commission investigates allegations of misconduct by judges in Florida. The results of an initial confidential investigation are presented to an investigative panel that decides whether there is enough evidence to file charges. If the panel agrees, formal charges are filed against the judge and the process becomes public. Accused judges are entitled to a procedure similar to a trial where evidence and witness testimony is presented, but most judges resolve such cases in negotiated agreement with the Commission. The Florida Supreme Court must approve any disciplinary outcome.
Paula McMahon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4533