Southern Florida has been hit by a storm of insensitivity that has achieved gale force — Peggy Gehl force. Complaints about Judge Peggy Gehl and inappropriate comments she allegedly made from the bench were recently lodged with Chief Judge Victor Tobin of the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit.

(The story broke last week in the South Florida blogosphere. But it hasn’t received much attention beyond the Sunshine State, perhaps because it happened right before Memorial Day weekend.)

On May 26, Howard Finkelstein — public defender for Broward County, as well as a television personality with his own show — sent a letter to Chief Judge Tobin, describing “four incidents wherein Judge Gehl made racist comments.” Here’s the first fun allegation:

Maybe Judge Gehl should have asked Wright Muir for a Red Stripe too?

This was just one of four incidents. We describe the other allegations against Judge Gehl — and interview PD Howard Finkelstein, a colorful character in his own right — after the jump.

For whatever reason, it seems Judge Gehl has a problem — yes problem, mon — with Jamaica. Here’s the second supposed incident, also involving Ghennette Wright Muir:

Was this really racist — or just a botched reference to the famous Come Back to Jamaica ad campaign?

Jamaicans, don’t take it personally. Judge Gehl apparently has opinions about other ethnic groups and their favorite controlled substances:

It’s beer. Hooray beer!

Thankfully, not all of Judge Gehl’s stereotypes are invidious, as reflected in incident #4:

Judge Gehl absolutely does not rule out the possibility that Jews are, on average, genetically predisposed to be more intelligent.

Now this sounds like a compliment. Why is Howard Finkelstein, who happens to be Jewish, complaining about it?

* * *

We chatted on the phone for a while with Finkelstein, who explained his beef with judges engaging in stereotyping from the bench. “I’m a hippie kid from the sixties, and I’ve been a public defender for most of my career,” he said. “I have no patience for judges who think the courts are for stand-up comedy.”

“Now look, I’m not a prude,” Finkelstein added. “I don’t care what judges say privately to their friends, over drinks at a bar. But when you walk into a courtroom and put on that robe, the jokes should stop.”

According to Finkelstein, Judge Gehl is by no means the first offender on the bench.

“This is the sixth judge I’ve had to complain about,” he said. Finkelstein mentioned one judge who referred to Haitian-Americans as living in “hovels,” and another judge who described a case with African-American defendants and victims as “NHI” — “no humans involved.” Longtime readers of ATL may recall that back in 2007, Finkelstein spoke out in a case involving a judge who made a crude joke about gay people while on the bench. (The joke involved the term “wide receiver.”)

Unfortunately, according to Finkelstein, problems with insensitive remarks by judges persist in Broward County. After one incident, sensitivity training was offered to the judges, but it was voluntary — meaning that the judges who most needed it didn’t go. “At that point, I wrote off the Broward County judiciary.”

Finkelstein has not yet received a response to his letter about Judge Gehl — and, based on how his prior complaints were handled, he’s not expecting much of one.

“The judicial qualifications board meets with the judge and tells the judge, ‘you can’t do this stuff.’ But there’s no public record of the proceedings. The regulatory body that oversees the judiciary is more concerned about protecting judges than protecting the public.”

To be fair, Finkelstein said that in his experience, even if some judges make racist remarks or jokes, their actual rulings generally do not reflect prejudice — a significant improvement from Broward County in years past.

“When I started practicing over 30 years ago, our judges were overt racist crackers,” Finkelstein said. “I can’t tell you how many cases I had where a judge would say, in a case with an African-American victim or a gay victim, ‘How can this be first degree murder? Shouldn’t it just be manslaughter?'”

“Our judiciary has changed a lot since then,” explained Finkelstein. “Now it is composed primarily of displaced northeastern Jews, who come in with a more liberal judicial philosophy. But even though they [sentence minorities fairly], they still feel free to joke about them.”

Speaking of Jews, what about Judge Gehl’s “Jews are the smartest” quip? Wasn’t that a compliment?

“I was a little stunned by it,” said Finkelstein. “It was an insult to the non-Jews in the courtroom. Some of the dumbest mother f**kers I’ve ever met have been Jewish. Saying that ‘Jews are the smartest’ is just a stupid statement. It’s a dumb, dumb statement. I have a very diverse office — Jews, Catholics, born again Christians, Muslims — and I can tell you that every ethnic and religious group has smart people and stupid people.”

“Sure, you can say that Jews are a very small proportion of the population, but a high proportion of Nobel Prize winners. Sure, you can play that game. But I can tell you that there are smart Jews and dumb Jews.”

And then Finkelstein made an observation that had echoes of the Crimson DNA email controversy: “Even if you believe that [Jews are smarter], why are you talking like that? In the courtroom?

Finally, such a comment, which might seem like a compliment, could backfire for a defense lawyer who laughs at or expresses agreement with it.

“What if in the next case you’re representing a client who’s Jewish and trying to argue that he lacked knowledge of [a certain scheme]? The judge will shove [that comment] up your a**.”

* * *

In the end, why do the complaints about Judge Gehl matter? As Finkelstein’s letter notes, “[b]ecause Judge Gehl has retired and is no longer on the criminal bench, the urgency and need [to address these incidents] has dissipated.”

But Finkelstein would like Chief Judge Tobin to be aware of Judge Gehl’s alleged statements in case she ever applies to sit on the bench as a retired judge. And it’s important to send the judiciary — and the public — the message that inappropriate remarks should not be tolerated.

“Judges are supposed to stand for something,” Finkelstein said. “They’re supposed to make sure that the promise of America, that all people are created equal, is delivered upon. When judges are making fun of ethnic groups, can we be confident that they aren’t making rulings based on the insidious, sometimes subtly racist thoughts that some people have?”

“If you want to talk like this or make jokes, go to a bar with your friends. This isn’t the Peggy Gehl comedy hour. You are the representative of the people, of the law — and the law says everyone is equal.”

P.S. In an email to the Broward Politics blog, Judge Gehl previously Finkelstein’s letter as “politically motivated” and directed inquiries to Chief Judge Tobin. We called Chief Judge Tobin’s chambers earlier today and left a message, but have not yet heard back.

SAY NO TO GEHL [JAABLOG]
Got Dreadlocks? The Judge Gehl Story [The Daily Pulp / Broward Palm Beach News]
Judge Gehl’s comments draw fire from public defender [Broward Politics / Sun Sentinel]
Judicial Ethics: Broward PD says judge made ethnic remarks in court, to staff [Daily Business Review]

Earlier: Shouldn’t a Black Robe Mean Never Having to Say You’re Sorry?


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