While it’s no secret among our nation’s citizenry that Florida is the Hellmouth of jurisprudence, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga conferred redemption upon Lady Justice and demonstrated that even in the land of Zimmerman and zealotry, Florida can sometimes get one right.
In July 2015, a bitter scene unfolded in the courtroom of Seminole County Judge Jerri Collins as a terrified and tearful young woman tried to explain why she had broken an order to appear before the court to testify against her abusive husband. If you have the fortitude, watch the anguished pleas of the victim as she relates her anxiety, depression and the material losses that resulted from her brutal victimization, and the stone-cold response of the Bush-appointed judge as she chillingly and remorselessly sentenced her to three days in jail:
Audibly sobbing, the victim begins to plead her case:
Woman: Your honor, I’m very sorry for not attending. I’ve been dealing with depression and a lot personally since this happened. And my anxiety is like … this is every day for me … We were trying to separate and things were …
Judge Collin: Why didn’t you show up to court?
Woman: My anxiety …
Judge Collins: You think you’re going to have anxiety now? You haven’t even seen anxiety. We had a jury, six people there ready to try [the defendant], who has a prior criminal history of domestic violence. You were required to be here by a court order. You disobeyed a court order, knowing that this was not going to turn out well for the state.
For the state?
Please, Judge, state for the record where and when we drifted from the Bush credo of “compassionate conservatism” and the allowance for humanity, foible and frailty on the part of the victim? It is nearly inconceivable that one trained in the ways of the law, having had more than 10 years on the bench, could be so manifestly hardened to the sufferings and struggles of domestic abuse survivors. Yet, clearly unmoved, Judge Collins proceeds to painfully reinforce the woman’s status as victim:
Woman: Because it’s not just domestic, this has been for years. And I’m, I’m just, I tried to move on a couple months ago, and it’s just like, I don’t know. I moved out, I’ve tried to move on with my life and when filed for child support last June, and it took them an entire year to find him, I don’t understand why, and May 1, I was supposed to be getting my child support so I could go get an apartment and go get a job, and everything. And when he went to jail for two weeks, he lost his job, he lost everything, and I’m like homeless now. I’m living at my parents’ house. Everything my husband shut off. I had to sell everything I own. I’m just not in a good place right now.
Judge Collins: And violating your court order did not do anything for you. I find you in contempt of court. I hereby sentence you to three days in the county jail.
As the bailiffs approach, the victim’s hysteria mounts and she pleads:
Judge, I’ll do anything. Please, please! I have a one-year-old son and I’m trying to take care of him by myself. I’m begging you, please, please!
Yet Judge Collins orders her, with no hint of feeling, to turn around…
to be handcuffed…
and taken to jail.
Again, you’ve succeeded in putting forward the worst possible face of our nation’s justice system, effectively placing a collective gag over the mouths of victims, ensuring that they remain reluctant to seek assistance from the very system designed to impart their justice. And while Judge Collins did legally possess the discretion to order the victim to jail, how is society served by doing so?
When the video footage of the courtroom scene aired on a local Orlando station, it caused a stir, and with it, the faintest glimmer of a silver lining on an otherwise sordid judicial affair. Having now publicly demonstrated her unfitness to judge even the Seminole County Hot Dog Eating Contest, Judge Collins was brought before the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission. After agreeing to a plea deal in March, this week she found herself on the receiving end of a harsh public scolding from Chief Justice Labarga who determined that she had violated the state’s code of judicial conduct:
You berated and belittled a victim of domestic violence. You were discourteous and impatient … You raised your voice, used sarcasm, spoke harshly and interrupted the victim.
Judge Collins, this is indeed a sad day for you, a sad day for the people of Florida and a sad day for the judiciary upon which our people depend for justice. I cannot emphasize enough how intolerable your behavior was in this case.
Therein lies the mother of all understatements.
Judge Collins was ordered to complete courses in anger management and domestic violence and looked sufficiently mortified as she stood before TV cameras through five minutes of public reprimand.
And Lady Justice smiled.
Indulge in a bit of justified schadenfreude, and watch the reprimand here:
Featured Image: video screen capture