Accepting the findings and recommendation of the Judicial Qualifications Commission based on stipulations, the Florida Supreme Court publicly reprimanded a judge for yelling and waving his arms at people in the lobby outside his courtroom to get them be quiet and threatening one of them with contempt. Inquiry Concerning Miller (Florida Supreme Court November 5, 2020).
On January 17, 2020, proceedings in a civil trial over which the judge was presiding were interrupted continuously by loud noise from the public lobby outside of the courtroom. The noise “was a result of many people congregating and not promptly disbursing” after another judge’s investiture, which had taken place in the ceremonial courtroom on the same floor.
At Judge Miller’s request, the bailiff and then the clerk and bailiff tried to quiet the people in the lobby. When those attempts were unsuccessful, the judge stepped down from the bench wearing his robe and went to the lobby accompanied by his bailiff. Several witnesses, including judges and lawyers, observed the judge “’yelling,’ and waving his arms at the people in the lobby while trying to get them [to] be quiet. . . .”
The judge observed a woman shaking her head while looking at him. Believing she was indicating that she would not cooperate with his attempt to quiet the crowd and “responding to what he believed was contemptuous behavior,” the judge approached the woman and shouted, “Do not shake your head at me” and twice threatened her with contempt, demanding to know, “Do you want to be held in contempt?” The judge asked her name and whether she was employed in the courthouse. He then went back into his courtroom.
The woman, who is an assistant general counsel for the court, did not yell, say anything disrespectful, or act contemptuously in any way, according to 2 judges who were talking with her at the time. Judge Miller acknowledged that “with hindsight she could have been shaking her head in disbelief over his behavior.”
The Court noted that the Commission had recognized that “[j]udges are given tools for dealing with serious interruptions,” to court proceedings including, “the direct (or summary) contempt power . . . .” But the Commission was “particularly disturbed by” the judge’s threat to use that contempt power against a woman merely “for shaking her head in disbelief over Judge Miller’s behavior.” The Commission explained: “Judge Miller had other options available for dealing with the disruption to his trial, such as taking a recess, or calling Court Administration to ask for assistance. The method he ultimately chose to employ reflected poorly on himself, and the judiciary as a whole.”
The Court felt “constrained to observe that . . . this case arose only because a loud crowd disrupted trial court proceedings and persisted in their noisemaking after extended efforts were made to bring quiet so that the trial could go on.” The Court acknowledged that the interruption did not excuse the judge’s conduct but emphasized that “the lengthy disruption of that trial should never have occurred. Investiture ceremonies are significant events in the life of our courts, but they should not occasion the disruption of judicial business.” It noted that “the participation of judges or court staff in any such disruption . . . is a matter of serious concern” and directed that administrative measures “be taken to ensure that such problems do not recur.”