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Not In Michigan: Judge Suspended For Disrespecting Defendant



I am consistently amazed at the dignity and respect that my local courts afford my clients and other criminal defendants. That said, through my experience practicing in other jurisdictions, I am also very, very familiar with judges speaking down to criminal defendants in cruel, inhumane, and offensive ways.


For example, A judge from Broward County, Florida has been suspended for yelling at a wheelchair-bound criminal defendant that died several days later. While I am thankful that this story does not originate from Michigan, I can certainly imagine it occurring in courtrooms I used to frequent.


As reported by the Miami Herald, Judge Merrilee Ehrlich "delivered a blistering, arm-waving, face-palming, tongue-lashing to a frail, out-of-breath woman — pushed into court in a wheelchair — who was facing misdemeanor charges following a family feud." The Herald article continues:


Sandra Faye Twiggs had never been in trouble before when the Lauderhill Police Department charged her on April 13 with scratching her daughter during a domestic dispute that began with a disagreement over a fan. Two days later, Twiggs was wheeled into Ehrlich's courtroom. She was coughing and gasping for breath.


Twiggs suffered from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. 

In a video of the April 15 encounter, Ehrlich appears to the left in a split screen, and Twiggs is shown seated in a wheelchair, barely visible above a lectern at the North Broward satellite courthouse. Ehrlich asks Twiggs whether she and her daughter, the alleged victim, live in the same house.

 

Twiggs tries to answer the question, which requires more than a "yes" or "no" because the 19-year-old doesn't live with Twiggs full-time. Mid-sentence, Ehrlich snaps at her: "Excuse me! Don't say anything beyond what I am asking you!" Clearly exasperated, Ehrlich asks Twiggs' lawyer, who is in a different location during the video hookup, to make Twiggs stop talking.


As Twiggs coughs and holds her head, Ehrlich speaks to deputies, who are off-screen: "Can someone there give her water as a kindness?" But the judge's anger continues to boil over. Twiggs tries to tell the judge that she needs medical treatment for her pulmonary problems.


The judge erupts: "Ma'am, I am not here to talk to you about your breathing treatments!" 


Again, Ehrlich prevails upon Twiggs' lawyer to teach her better courtroom manners. "Will you say something in the microphone so that she can hear you and you can give her instructions about propriety in the court?" the judge says. "I'm not going to spend all day with her interrupting me," Ehrlich says.


"You've already said too much!" the judge yells later, as Twiggs tries to answer another question.


Ms. Twiggs' sister found Twiggs deceased in her the day after he was released from jail.


The Herald further reported that, after Twigg's case, Judge Ehrlich berated a woman charged with stretching out a man's t-shirt. When the woman expressed concern about who would care for her 9-month-old baby while she was in jail, she began to sob and shake, prompting the judge to yell: "Don't talk! You have an attorney here talking for you!" Ehrlich shouts. "Ma'am, be quiet or be removed! Be quiet!"


Per CNN, in response to Ehrlich's conduct and the criticism from the county's elected public defender, Chief Judge Jack Tuter stated that "I am saddened and disappointed in the way Judge Ehrlich behaved on the video. Her behavior cannot be condoned," and concluded that "In light of recent events, we have decided Judge Ehrlich will not return to the courthouse as her retirement is effective June 30." Judge Ehrlich then resigned, ostensibly to avoid dealing with the suspension or any disciplinary proceedings.


My surprise with this story is not what the judge did, but rather that her superiors took action against her. Honestly, the judge's actions in this case didn't register as anything other than typical bias and unfairness to criminal defendants. I have watched judges yell at defendants, say mean things to defendants, not listen to defendants, and make horrible rulings about defendants' cases. 


So, thank you, Chief Judge Jack Tuter, for banging your gavel in favor of reaffirming that basic human dignity should be afforded to everyone, even poor and unpopular criminal defendants.