MIAMI — Lawyers gawked from office windows last month when a BMW SUV swiped a parked police cruiser in the parking lot of a courthouse in Fort Lauderdale and then slammed into a gate over and over again.
A judge was at the wheel.
As lawyers used smartphones to snap pictures of the morning spectacle, Judge Lynn Rosenthal became the third Broward County judge in six months to be arrested on charges of driving under the influence. A colleague, Judge Gisele Pollack, had been suspended five days earlier after being arrested on a DUI charge while already on leave for taking the bench intoxicated — twice.
Even for South Florida, where absurd news events are routine and a sheriff went to prison for corruption, the spate of judicial scandals has raised serious questions about whether the arrests in Broward are a bizarre coincidence or underscore a larger systemic problem. In a county where the judiciary is known for old-school nepotism and cronyism — and judges have been caught smoking marijuana at a park and found drunk and partly naked in a hotel hallway — some lawyers are wondering: At what point do isolated instances of misconduct point to something bigger?
On Wednesday, ABC affiliate WPLG, citing anonymous sources, reported that a Broward Family Court judge was under federal investigation on suspicion of allowing a now-convicted Ponzi schemer to influence a case.
And a former judge in Broward was disbarred this month for lying about an "emotional relationship" with a prosecutor in a death penalty case. Yet another judge was ordered removed in April after being accused of cheating clients and a co-counsel in the settlement of a civil suit she handled as a private lawyer a decade ago.
As it turns out, bad behavior by judges has become distressingly common across Florida in recent months. Judge John Murphy in Brevard County is on leave after he was caught on video this month threatening a public defender, who accused the judge of punching him in the head. In the Keys, a judge who was replaced on the bench after dozing off told a local news reporter that the insomnia drug Ambien made him hallucinate about "Fantasia and the dancing brooms." Another stepped down because a blogger exposed a sexually explicit profile the judge had posted on a gay dating site.
But Broward, a heavily Democratic county of 1.8 million people with many judges who are the children, spouses, siblings and fraternity brothers of other judges and some of the most powerful people in town, seems to be ground zero for allegations of judicial misconduct. The system's critics say that is because Broward has a highly politicized and clannish culture that is known for protecting its own, which has led some in the judiciary to feel invincible, even as they preside over a county court system that produces the state's highest exoneration rate.
"I do think it belies an underlying systemic problem in Broward County," said Howard Finkelstein, Broward's elected public defender. "I don't think this stunningly embarrassing fact of having all these charges pending at the same time is indicative of a judiciary with substance abuse problems, but I do think it is a manifestation of the greater problem of a circle-the-wagons mentality."
Records posted online by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the independent agency that investigates misconduct by state judges in Florida's 67 counties, show that 17 percent of the 62 formal disciplinary cases filed against sitting judges since 2001 have been in Broward.
Those figures do not include two judges who were recently arrested or those who resigned before a case was made public, such as Judge Lawrence Korda, who, in 2007, after presiding over parts of the Anna Nicole Smith case, was caught smoking marijuana in a park. (Not to be confused with Larry Seidlin, the Broward judge who sobbed on the bench during a nationally televised ruling on where the reality TV star should be buried.)
Many judges accused of wrongdoing remain on the bench, such as the family court judge who took in a foster child who had appeared in his court, only for the teenager to accuse the judge years later of molesting him.
William Gelin, a defense lawyer in Broward who runs a blog, Jaablaw.com, that chronicles courthouse antics and posted a photo of Rosenthal's arrest, noted that the Judicial Qualifications Commission reveals only cases that result in misconduct charges. Most complaints against judges remain secret, which he said adds to the perception that judges feel omnipotent.
"It's time to shine a light on these individuals and their performance, as the Founding Fathers intended," Gelin said.
Michael Schneider, executive director and general counsel of the commission, acknowledged that the recent run of arrests of Broward judges is unusual, but he said the commission has dealt with the cases "one at a time" and not systemically.
"The commission isn't a punishment group," he said. "It's designed to evaluate fitness of somebody to be a judge."
Broward's chief judge, Peter Weinstein, said the rash of arrests is an "anomaly" that does not reflect the hard work judges do every day at the courthouse.
"It's a big court system — we have 103 people making decisions every single day," Weinstein said. "Overall, we have excellent judges, and nobody ever reads or hears anything about them."