New judges taught to spot 'traps'


Published: Monday, January 29, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 29, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

ORLANDO — It's the second day of a contentious trial in which a woman stands accused of stabbing her cheating husband. During a conference at the bench, the wife manages to grab the knife and sneak it back to the defense table before the judge notices.

It was a test to see whether the judge would notice.

Her move was one of many "traps" set for 110 new judges from across the state who came to Orlando recently for Florida Judicial College.

It is required schooling for all newly appointed and elected judges who are taking the bench this month. In the world of courtroom drama, this is an unfamiliar role for the novices, who have spent thousands of hours as attorneys advocating for one side or another. Being an impartial jurist can be a difficult adjustment.

"When you win an election, they don't include a book on how to be a good judge," said Jenifer Davis, a former assistant public defender and newly elected Orange Circuit Court judge. "The week has been marvelous. They give you scenarios that may arise."

The faculty — sitting and retired judges — cover issues ranging from what to look for when signing a search warrant to what to do at a defendant's first appearance.

"Even if you're comfortable with the subject matter, it's different being a judge than a lawyer," said Orange Circuit Court Judge Fred Lauten, the college's dean.

For judges, the rules are important and even the appearance of impropriety must be avoided. A bulletin board near the registration table held news of judges who broke those rules — and were arrested for DUI or had a romantic relationship with an attorney in their court.

They were there as examples of mistakes made by others. Seminole County Judge John Sloop was recently removed from office for ordering 11 people jailed two years ago for mistakenly going to the wrong courtroom. All were strip-searched and locked up for eight hours.

The new judges spent three hours in ethics class, discussing topics such as which clubs and affiliations are off-limits and what types of recommendation letters they are permitted to pen.

Throughout the week, each new judge donned a black robe and ruled over a mock trial. Experienced judges — who played the roles of lawyers, defendant, victim, bailiff and jury — critiqued the performances.

Some said the biggest challenge is the transition from advocate to referee.

"Half of these judges have been defense attorneys and the other half have been prosecuting attorneys or civil attorneys," said Bob LeBlanc, a former defense attorney who is an Orange circuit judge. "We are learning to make sure we don't advocate for either side."

The new judges also must learn to manage a courtroom, such as making sure clerks and bailiffs are comfortable and ready to work.

"As a lawyer, you just show up with your briefcase and your client," said Tim Shea, a private attorney who was elected to the Orange circuit bench.

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jeff Colbath — who played the stabbed, cheating husband — reminded a new judge from Miami to be aware of everything that happens in the courtroom, not just the legal arguments.

During her mock trial, a number of things went wrong: A sleeping juror. A gum-smacking defendant. A name-calling lawyer. The knife.

"As a lawyer, you were the leading character," Colbath said during a critique session. "Now, you're kind of like the director and you're in charge of everything."

End advance

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