I don't know what's going on in Brevard County Court. I don't know if their courts are hopelessly back logged with defendants waiting for court dates. I don't know if the prosecutor's office there is charging too many cases, refusing to negotiate deals, if the public defender's office is stretched too thin due to understaffing, or some combination of all of the above. But there is clearly something happening, leading to some simmering tension.
That tension boiled over yesterday when Judge John Murphy asked assistant public defender Andrew Weinstock what he wanted to do with a case and the PD doggedly said more than once that he wasn't waiving. The conversation was about whether Weinstock's client would get a speedy trial. It sure seems the judge was determined to get a waiver of that constitutional right. The judge was certainly annoyed at the PD's refusal to cooperate. It can be very inconvenient for courts when defense attorneys actually insist on protecting their clients' rights. The judge told the PD he was pissing him off, told the PD to sit down. The PD said he had a right to be there and to stand up for his client.
What happened at first isn't all that odd. It's the kind of exchange that most judges and PDs will have at some point. "Please waive your client's constitutional speedy trial right because my docket is a mess and I don't know how we'll fit it in," says the Judge. "Not our problem," replies the PD.
It's what happened next that sets this one apart. The Judge said he would throw a rock at the PD if he had one. Then he suggests the two should go outside. And the PD does. The video doesn't follow the pair into the hallway, but an altercation can be heard, some thumps, and I thought I heard some profanity. This article includes the video.
The PD says as soon as they got into the hallway, the judge started punching him. No discussion, no attempts to work out their personal differences, just punching. After a minute or so, the judge comes back into the courtroom (to some applause, yikes) and takes a minute to gather his breath. Doesn't seem like the PD returned fire at all. For all the bravado he exhibited leaving the courtroom at the judge's invitation, he surely knew a lawyer punching a judge is a career-ending move sure to land that lawyer in jail for at least a night.
Now, I can get plenty ranty about what this judge did to the PD. The PD was absolutely wrong to leave the courtroom as he did, though, of course, one rarely exhibits the best judgment in the heat of the moment. Ideally, the PD would have stuck to his guns on the waiver issue and then asked for recusal after the threat of physical violence. But the judge is totally at fault here. You don't get to punch people! You definitely don't get to punch defense lawyers for having the gall to defend their clients' rights!
This judge should be removed from the bench. I'd be ok with him not facing criminal charges if he suffers that consequence. He does not belong on the bench, with people's lives at stake, if that's how he handles conflict, especially when the conflict is purely because a defense lawyer refuses to bend to his will. What defense attorney would feel comfortable appearing before this judge now? I wouldn't. Even if he wouldn't hit me, the real physical intimidation that occurred in this case with this attorney will linger in his courtroom. So far, the only statement has been that this judge will not sit on any of this attorney's cases, but I don't think that begins to address the problem. This may have been the only attorney to have suffered actual physical injury at this judge's hand, but it won't be the only attorney affected.
But there's much, much more to this than has been covered in any of the articles I've read about the incident. The judge went on to do something else that should get him removed and that sheds more light on what his real motivations were.
The entire time this incident was occurring, the poor defendant stood quietly and respectfully at the podium. He was still there when the judge, and the judge alone, returned to the courtroom. He stood there quietly as the judge composed himself and regained his breath. And then, the judge addressed him.
The judge asked the defendant what he wanted to do. Not about sticking with that attorney or being reassigned, not about sticking around to see if another PD could show up to continue the scheduling hearing. Nope, he asked the defendant a substantive question about setting a trial date. Did the defendant want a trial date or did he want to waive his speedy trial right? That's right, the judge went back to a defendant who was represented by counsel but whose counsel was not in the courtroom because said counsel had just been beaten up by the judge and asked the defendant to waive the very constitutional right his counsel just got beat up for refusing to waive! Of everything that happened, that to me is the most outrageous. The judge couldn't get that damned public defender to cave, but maybe not that he's out of the way, the defendant will.
A judge doesn't get to interact that way with a defendant who is represented by counsel. He certainly doesn't get to create a conflict with the attorney so the attorney can't come back in the courtroom and then treat the defendant as an unrepresented defendant. What is a defendant supposed to think at that moment? If I don't waive my right, what will this judge do to me? A defendant shouldn't have to worry that he will suffer consequences for invoking a constitutional right.
Fortunately, this defendant stood firm and refused to waive his right. Had he waived it, that should have been a slam-dunk win for the defense because no way would that waiver have been valid. But none of that takes away from how unacceptable it was that the judge asked the question in the first place. He had no business conducting any business with that defendant while he stood in court without his appointed attorney. I wonder if any other defense attorneys (or prosecutors, for that matter) were in the courtroom when the judge addressed the defendant. I would hope one would have stood up and suggested no hearing should proceed in that fashion. But what lawyer would want to challenge that judge after what had just happened?
What this judge did is despicable and it is behavior that has no place on any bench in any courtroom.