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Monday, February 9, 2009

The Bar's Bagging of Judge Cliff Barnes

The Bagging of Judge Barnes

By Norm Kent

I guess I cannot help it. As this blog unfolds, I find myself consumed with issues of free speech and the first amendment. I defend it fiercely. I wish my Florida Bar did so too. They do not.

Weekly, it seems, there are victims, bodies of lawyers who have stood up to inappropriate judicial conduct. All have one thing in common. They were speaking out against an injustice they perceived which permeated the system we are sworn to uphold.

In each instance, the Bar prosecuted the speaker, more concerned about protecting the robes and riches of those inside the system than the protesters on the outside. You see, the system is not about the one side in power with the keys to the courthouse elevator. It protects those living under bridges, too. It is just that if some judge calls 911 from his BMW, he is more likely to get a response than a homeless guy whose shopping cart was stolen.

In Broward County, until changes belatedly enacted just last year, the first appearance process was a colossal disaster, harmful and hurtful to the inmates so charged. Every so often you have to remind the Robes that the penalty for arrest is incarceration. Mistreatment, flogging and neglect are not corollary requirements, are they?

In St. Lucie County, there also was a first appearance process which stunk. So angered was Judge Cliff Barnes about its inequities, he wrote a newspaper column which pilloried his colleagues for perpetuating the injustice. Then he did what lawyers are supposed to. He went to court to redress his grievances. The man stood up to the Robes, even though he wore one himself. He exposed the emperors.

The result is Barnes may have to write his next column from a Birmingham jail. A unanimous Supreme Court used a Florida Bar rule to conclude his public condemnation of the injustices of the process ‘have undermined public confidence in the judicial system.’ (Oh, yeah, the public really has a lot of confidence in our system of justice.) He was too strident, the Supreme Court said, and it was not a legitimate attempt to improve the law, they determined.

Judge Barnes will accept his punishment and appear for a public reprimand. I think maybe he should stand outside with a clenched fist held high in the air. Like those Black athletes in the 1968 Olympics.

The Supreme Court had an opportunity to say that a judge courageously brought public attention to an alarming process which wrongly kept citizens in jail unjustifiably. They could have celebrated his achievements in using his office to foster a change which got innocent people out of jail.

Instead, the Supreme Court will censure the Judge, but I suspect in doing so they dishonor themselves. Their ruling sends a message to the disenfranchised that a proponent for a just cause, proven right in his efforts, warrants approbation, but those indelicately exposed for perpetuating a wrong warrant protection. Sean Conway, step on down. You have company.

The highest court of the State of Florida chose to protect their own. In doing so, they passed on the father of two missing work and sitting in jail hours after he should have been released from custody. We are lucky these jurists are not deciding Gideon today. He would not have had a chance.

Here are two related pieces:

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