Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"So, Paul, are all Florida judges bozos?"


Paul here...

"What about it? Are all Florida judges clowns?"

That's what my Left Coast pals are asking after the bizarre performance last week of Broward County Probate Judge Larry Seidlin, who presided over the Anna Nicole Smith Traveling Circus and Freak Show.

Who better to answer the question? My credentials: I covered the courts in South Florida for The Miami Herald, back in the days when people read newspapers. I practiced law in South Florida for 17 years, appearing in front of some judges who were brilliant, others who were dim, some hard-working, some lazy, some conscientious, and some downright crooked.

In every Miami courtroom, a sign hangs above the bench. "We who labor here seek only the truth." In my first novel, To Speak for the Dead, tough-guy lawyer Jake Lassiter says:

"There oughta be a footnote. 'Subject to the truth being concealed by lying witnesses, distorted by sleazy lawyers, and excluded by inept judges.'”

Which brings us back to Judge Larry Seidlin, who cried when he announced his ruling after several days of malapropisms, misstatements of the law, and general chaos in the court.

(My personal favorite was the Judge referring to the deceased as "Anna Nicole Miller." Well, she liked to shop, right?)

But I come to praise The Weeper, not to bury him. In my opinion, the guy has a good heart. No one may ever confuse him with Brandeis or Holmes, but he means well.

See, I have a conflict of interest. My wife, the lovely Renee, was married by Judge Seidlin. No, not married to him. Larry Seidlin presided over Renee's marriage to a person other than my manly self. She has also played tennis with the Judge, considers him a friend, and has cautioned me, in stern legal language, not to say anything negative about His Honor.

This came after I asked Renee if I could post photos of Judge Seidlin presiding at her marriage. She informed me, both orally and in writing, that should I do so, she would sue me for invasion of privacy, infliction of mental distress, and violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Not only that, no more bok choy in the wok, which frankly, was almost enough to make me violate her strict instructions. But...no photos and not one negative comment.

I will relate this one tidbit, however. At the crucial point in her wedding, the Judge asked: "Do you, Renee, promise to love, cherish and keep Carl healthy so that he can play racquetball with me?"

And that's it, because I do not want to have an injunction served against me or find my tequila laced with arsenic.

As you can tell, I have a somewhat conflicted relationship with the justice system. Yes, I'm cynical. But I also retain hope that the words carved in the granite -- Equal Justice Under Law -- really mean something.

This month, I tried to express this ambivlance in a short article published in "The Penn Stater." I'm re-printing the piece here, which also gives me an excuse to show Old Main in the snow two weeks ago.


“Has the jury reached a verdict?”

The words send a jolt of electricity up my spine.

“We have, Your Honor.”

There’s a ringing in my ears. Will I even hear what they say?

”The clerk will publish the verdict.”

My palms are sweaty. And I’m only the lawyer. Imagine the guy sitting next to me.

“We, the jury, find the defendant...”

For the past 16 years, I’ve been trying to capture that moment. The tension, the hope, the fear. And while I write fiction, to a large degree, I’ve borrowed from real life for my courtroom thrillers.

A week after graduating from Penn State, I started work as a criminal court reporter with The Miami Herald. Never been in a courtroom, I didn’t know habeas corpus from an bottlenose porpoise. A prosecutor took pity, showed me around, and taught me a few Latin expressions. (“Mero Motu,” it turns out, is not a businessman’s greeting in Tokyo, but rather an act undertaken on the court’s own motion).

I began having lunch with the prosecutor and two of his colleagues. They wowed me with their war stories, singing paeans to the majesty of the law and the high calling of public service. So sure enough, I went to law school, and my three prosecutor pals became judges. Now, flash forward 20 years. Those judges must be deans of the profession, right? Nope. All three are in federal prison, convicted of bribery, one of them for “selling” the name of a confidential informant so the defendant could arrange his murder.

So is it any wonder that I’m cynical about the halls of justice, where as Lenny Bruce once complained, the only justice is in the halls? Is it a surprise that judges in my books are usually lame-brained and occasionally crooked? (One judge, in feeble attempt to be fair, simply alternates rulings on objections. "Sustained." “Overruled.” “Sustained.” “Overruled.”)

But back to the Miami courthouse in 1970 where, as a fledgling reporter, I also made friends with the Courthouse Gang, a multi-ethnic posse of retirees who showed up every day for the free entertainment. My buddies all knew a good story and invariably guided me to the right courtroom and filled me in on testimony I missed. The Gang lives on in fiction. Myron (The Maven) Mendelsohn, Teresa ToraƱo, and Cadillac Johnson use their unique skills to help the squabbling lawyers in my “Solomon vs. Lord” novels.

The last trial I covered as a reporter was a doozy. Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, was charged with indecent exposure for exposing himself at a Miami concert. One of the prosecutors was a mini-skirted former beauty queen named Ellen Morphonios, renowned for her ribald sense of humor. Just before opening statements, Ellen told me her trial strategy: “I’m gonna have the clerk stamp that dirtbag’s equipment and call it ‘State’s Exhibit One.’” Hey, you don’t hear that on COURT TV.

Courtrooms may look like churches, trimmed with mahogany and exuding an air of solemnity. And sure, some proceedings are deadly dull, but there’s a surprising amount of humor between bench and bar.

In my first year practicing law, I tried a case before a colorful old judge named Frederick Barad. I thought I was doing great, but in closing argument, I noticed that a juror was sound asleep.

“Your Honor,” I whispered, gesturing toward juror number three, who was snoring loudly.

“What do you want from me?” the judge replied. “You put him to sleep. You wake him up.”



  1. You know...I was willing to give the judge the benefit of the doubt until I heard he had made a demo tape of his past colorful courtroom antics and was pitching it to various media outlets, including TMZ.com, hoping they'd select him as the next Judge Judy.

    Now you say the fabulous Renee has given him the thumbs up. I'm conflicted.

  2. Renee says he's a good tennis player and a nice guy. Which, come to think of it, is more than can be said for a number of judges I have known...

  3. Great war stories, Paul. Nothing's as fun as a courthouse.

  4. Sorry, Paul. All we saw as we frantically tried to change channels when encountering the 'Anna Nicole over-hyped circus' was a bozo Judge in power trying to make a name for himself and his fifteen minutes of fame. I'm glad that he has you and Renee to balance that picture.

    I have practically gagged every time I see the endless hours of tv coverage and talk news wasted on that over emphasized blonde bimbo. There're more important things in the world, like the endless parade of the dead, dying and wounded of Americans, Iraqi innocents, and others in the Middle East. What about the decaying Education system and medical coverage here in the USA - which are far more urgent than a stupid blonde's disposition of mortal remains.

    Speaking of stupid: all hail the American Idol circus and it's posturing judges. And standing ovation to Jennifer Hudson and her wonderful Cinderella story - reject to chance of a lifetime (Dreamgirls), to superior reward (Best Supporting Actress Oscar)!!! See truth is stranger than fiction. :-D


  5. Agreed, Marianne, on all counts.

    Seems like the Fall of the Roman Empire these days.

    And yes, glad for Jennifer Hudson. But I think Eddie Murphy should have won best supporting actor. No disrespect to Alan Arkin, but that role was so-o-o-o easy for him whereas E. Murphy had to dig deep to bring out the pain of the wrecked soul singer.

    And...how great to hear from Michele Martinez, who's knocking everyone dead with "Cover-Up," her critically acclaimed new thriller. (starred review in PW). Michele's an ex-federal prosecutor...but then, you knew that.

  6. Luckily for me, when the crying episode was on, I was at the gym doing one of those endless bicycle rides to nowhere and the sound wasn't on. So I got all the body language without any of the dialogue, which convinced me,

    Okay, work with me here...

    People are insane.