National embarrassment

The video of a June 2014 altercation between Judge John Murphy and Andrew Weinstock, an assistant public defender, went viral.  A hearing panel of the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission found last week:

The altercation between Weinstock and Judge Murphy created a remarkable national embarrassment for not only the judiciary of the State of Florida, but for its citizens as well.  Statewide and national newspaper and television media reported the public and violent confrontation between a presiding Judge who actually left the bench after saying he would “beat your ass” in the midst of a judicial proceeding, and the Assistant Public Defender who had defied and disrespected the Judge.

Although it stated “there was no doubt that the two men engaged in a scuffle or a fight” while they were in the hallway, where there were no cameras or witnesses, the panel did find not find clear and convincing evidence that the judge had struck Weinstock, as the public defender claimed.  Nevertheless, the panel concluded:

The dispute in Judge Murphy’s courtroom and the hallway was more than inappropriate.  It was aggressive and appalling.  Mr. Weinstock’s behavior deserved to be disciplined, but Judge Murphy’s comments to Mr. Weinstock were reprehensible.  Judge Murphy said “if I had a rock I would throw it at you right now.  Stop pissing me off.”…  “Sit down.” …  “If you want to fight, let’s go out back and I’ll just beat your ass.”…  “Alright you, you want to fuck with me.”

The panel recommended that the judge be suspended for 120 days without pay, fined $50,000, and publicly reprimanded; the final decision will be made by the Florida Supreme Court.  The judge has expressed “profound remorse.”

An unusual aspect of the findings was the hearing panel’s announcement that it was “referring the entire transcript of these proceedings to The Florida Bar for an investigation and appropriate action.”  (The judge did not file a grievance against Weinstock at least before the hearing; the Bar had investigated the June 2014 incident, although it did not interview the judge, and given Weinstock a letter of advice.)  The panel noted that there had been substantial evidence admitted during its hearing that, in addition to the June 2014 incident, “Weinstock was generally rude, disrespectful, incompetent and a highly unlikeable lawyer.”  The panel emphasized that “it is significant that although Weinstock was generally held in disrepute among the judges and other people in the courthouse, no one chose to seek the intervention of or investigation by The Florida Bar.”  Another judge who testified had “candidly admitted . . . that even though Mr. Weinstock’s behavior had been consistently unprofessional before her and other judges in Brevard County, neither she nor any other judge in the courthouse had done anything to address it even as much as reporting their objections to his behavior to a supervisor in the Office of the Public Defender, or to the Florida Bar.”  It is interesting to speculate whether, if judges had taken some action in response to previous misbehavior by Weinstock, the “remarkable national embarrassment” for Florida could have been prevented.   The case should cause judges to consider whether there is a situation in their jurisdiction in which “a stitch in time could save nine.”

The day after the Florida panel’s findings (coincidentally, of course), the Mississippi Supreme Court urged a judge, an assistant public defender, and the county public defender “to ameliorate” their problems “so the judiciary may achieve the orderly administration of justice, the public may have confidence in the judicial process,” and defendants, victims, and their families “will not be deprived of fairness or justice due to personal issues.”  The judge, finding that the assistant public defender was incompetent and had engaged in sanctionable conduct, had appointed private counsel to represent the defendants in 55 cases instead, and the county public defender had filed a motion to recuse the judge.  The Court held that removing an assistant public defender from a case “is not a substitute for the bar complaint process,” noted that the judge had held no hearing, made not finding of contempt, and issued no sanctions, and concluded that the judge’s allegations of inappropriate conduct did not justify the extreme sanction of excluding the assistant public defender from all future cases before him.

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