~ In-Fighting In Florida Courts ~
- In-Fighting In Florida CourtsBroward court blog is going too far, critics claimOthers call it `open forum'http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/broward/sfl-cblog13may13,0,1498387.story?page=1&coll=sfla-news-broward
By Tonya Alanez
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted May 13 2007Some attorneys have said they loved the blog's initial stated intentions, but have since taken a step back. The tipping point: when postings began to appear last fall about alleged romantic relationships between judges and attorneys and jabs about Stacy Ross' appointment to the bench. She is the chief judge's daughter.A weblog created to constructively look at Broward judges' performances on the bench is now raising concerns that the comments have gone too far.
Critics say what they viewed as funny and informative discourse about doings at the county courthouse has degenerated into bitter and vile attacks on judges and attorneys. The growing concern has pitted factions of the courthouse against one another and launched charges of censorship.
"They're trying to shut down the blog," said defense attorney Sean Conway. Conway is the target of an anonymous complaint lodged with the Florida Bar over a posting carrying his name last Halloween. The post, which Conway neither admits or denies making, called Broward Circuit Judge Cheryl Alemán an "evil, unfair witch" and questioned her mental stability and adherence to law.
Some viewed that as an example of criticism gone too far.
Conway thinks the complaint with the bar is a scare tactic initiated by a small group of judges.
"They don't like what it stands for. It shakes up their good-ole-boy system, and it's opening the way for more people to run for judge."
He said he is unfazed by the complaint and continues to post using his name.
The Justice Advocacy Association of Broward blog (jaablog.jaablaw.com) went up late last summer. Bill Gelin, an attorney who helped launch the blog, says it has the power to break courthouse "traditions of cronyism and nepotism."
It quickly gained an audience with its open dialogue and platform for venting about perceived judicial injustices, and by calling on local lawyers to run against sitting judges. Readers say it tapped into the pulse of the courthouse community.
Then, things turned prickly. As postings became more strident, some began to question the blog's effectiveness.
Broward Chief Judge Dale Ross, a frequent target of postings, has said the blog is out to "undermine" the judiciary.
A string of recent gaffes by judges provided great fodder for the blog. They included comments deemed racially and culturally insensitive, a marijuana bust and what was viewed as buffoonish behavior in a nationally televised case.
Of almost two-dozen judges called to comment on the blog, seven responded. Of those, only one said she had never read it.
Some use it as an unfiltered view of their work.
"Very rarely will people say [to a judge] you're terrible, or you're this or you're that," said Circuit Judge Jeffrey Levenson. "It gives me a sense of how can I do a better job."
Administrative Circuit Civil Judge Thomas M. Lynch IV is an occasional reader. He sees the blog as "informative and entertaining" but also thinks it obsessively targets Ross and tries to hurt judges in general.
"It has a very brutal and nasty way of saying things sometimes," Lynch said. "But you know, this is America, and I love the First Amendment."
Freedom of speech is what drives frequent posters like Conway.
His attorney, Fred Haddad, says the bar complaint about his client is nothing more than an attempt to quell that freedom.
"I certainly have the right to call the president of the United States a moron, or the former governor stupid, or the entire House of Representatives buffoons and that is fully protected," Haddad said. "I can't believe that one is going to have a lawyer censured for criticizing a judge. These people were appointed to the bench, not anointed to an office. They're not cardinals."
Attorney Michael Ahearn said he was addicted to the blog, visiting maybe 10 times a day. Now, he's on blog detox, he says, and has cut back to a few times a week.
South Florida has two other court-oriented blogs.
On the Southern District of Florida Blog, Miami-based attorney David Oscar Markus strikes an even-handed, statesman-like tone and tends toward observation rather than critique. The Justice Building Blog, authored by another Miami-based attorney who posts anonymously, cloaks its jabs with humor.
Broward's blog differs in that several authors post. Comments are open to everyone, anonymous or not.
Folks are torn about anonymous postings.
Administrative Criminal Circuit Judge Ana Gardiner, for one, says she's "never been in favor of anonymous statements," adding that she's looked at the blog maybe three times at most.
"Especially if you're reading something about yourself, it doesn't feel that good to read anonymous comments," she said. "If you feel your comment is a legitimate concern, then why not put your name to it? If your goal is to promote a positive change, then why not put your name on it?"
Attorney Jeff Ivashuk, a frequent poster who uses his name, says he understands the impulse to post anonymously.
"Historically, whenever change is instituted there have been anonymous writers," he said. "I think anytime the powers are challenged, there are people out there that are going to feel more comfortable doing it anonymously, and I think that's just human nature."
Tonya Alanez can be reached at tealanez@... or 954-356-4542.
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