Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Shining a light on judicial abuse

There's just something about putting on that black polyester robe that brings out the worst in some people. Broward County (FL) Judge Merrillee Ehrlich is just the latest example of black robe syndrome.

On April 15, 2018, the target of her ire was Sandra Faye Twiggs, a 59 year-old disabled defendant arrested on a misdemeanor charge. During the arraignment, Judge Ehrlich asked Ms. Twiggs some questions about the charge. When Ms. Twiggs tried to answer, Judge Ehrlich cut her off repeatedly and berated her.

When Ms. Twiggs complained about having problems breathing due to her COPD, Judge Ehrlich wasn't having any of it. And why was her attorney on video and not present in the courtroom? How does one exercise her right to counsel when the attorney isn't in the courtroom with her? Does the absence of attorneys have anything to do with the judge's belief that she can unload on defendants at will?

Ms. Twiggs were released from the county jail two days later on April 17. She died the next day.

Judge Ehrlich has since resigned from the bench without giving a reason why.

Just how out of the ordinary is what happened in that Broward County courtroom? How many defendants are yelled at by judges on a daily basis? How many defendants are treated in a callous manner without regard for their health or other issues?

The only reason we know about Judge Ehrlich's conniption fit is because the proceedings were recorded with a video camera. How much of this goes on across the country in courtrooms where recording equipment is banned?

I've seen judges berate defendants. The judges did so with impunity because they knew there was no record of the way in which they treated those accused of breaking the law. They knew that if it ever came to a head that deference would be shown to the person wearing the polyester robe long before it would ever be afforded to the defendant.

Allowing cameras unfettered access to the courtroom might not be the best idea, however. What about those folks sitting in the courtroom - accused of a crime but presumed innocent under the law? They have a right not to be photographed in the courtroom.

Then we have the open courts provisions in the Texas Constitution. A courtroom is supposed to remain open to the public - notwithstanding attempts by judges and bailiffs to remove those who aren't on the docket from the courtroom every morning and afternoon. Should we place a fixed mount camera in every courtroom focused on the bench and those standing before the court?

However we come down on those questions, it is undeniable that light is the great disinfectant. With the exception of "reality" television, the presence of a camera seems to make everyone behave just a little bit better and pay just a little more attention to social mores.

But for a camera, Judge Ehrlich would be free to continue her reign of abuse.

1 comment:

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