Is a Florida Chief Judge Taking Cues From a Prosecutor?

Brad King, State Attorney - Fifth Judicial Circuit of Florida

Prosecutors are some of the most powerful elected officials in our country. They decide what charges to file or dismiss, how severe the charges will be, whether to seek cash bail, and what plea offers are made. Through their lobbying associations, they also shape criminal statutes to their benefit, often blocking reforms that the community supports.

But while prosecutors wield immense control over the direction of our criminal justice system, they certainly can’t handpick the judges who hear their criminal cases.

Or can they?

In Marion County, Florida, Brad King — the elected state attorney and the county’s top prosecutor — believed he was losing too often in the criminal cases his office was prosecuting. Instead of upping his game, he managed to shift it in his favor, with the help of a judge whose job it is to guard the integrity of the judicial process.              

On July 12, King sent a scathing letter to the administrative judge of Marion County, Judge James McCune, complaining about two of McCune’s colleagues, before whom King and his staff regularly appeared: Judge Robert Landt and Judge Thomas Thompson III. That letter was obtained by the ACLU of Florida through a public records request, and is being publicly released in full here for the first time.

King’s complaints were brazenly self-serving. Of Judge Landt, King asserted that his “rulings on such things as motions to dismiss, motions to suppress evidence, and motions to set bond, and his sentencings, are consistently more favorable to the defense than other judges.” King threatened to assign fewer prosecutors to Landt’s docket, because “we expect little in the way of punishment for those defendants.” As for Judge Thompson, King complained that he “grants continuance after continuance to defendants,” in reference to a tool commonly used by judges to postpone proceedings and requested by both sides to allow proper preparation for trial. In his letter, King also formally demanded that the number of judges in the Marion County Criminal Court be reduced.

After sending his letter, King claimed that his issues with Landt relate to allegations of harassment of King’s female attorneys. However, these allegations were investigated and closed years ago. Moreover, King’s letter makes clear that adverse rulings, not those claims, are the reason King sought Landt’s removal.

Within days of receiving the letter, Chief Judge Sue Robbins, who oversees Judge McCune, gave King exactly what he wanted. Without consulting defense attorneys, whose clients’ cases are directly impacted by these changes, Robbins reduced the numbers of judges in the Marion County Criminal Court from four to two. Specifically, she removed Landt and Thompson — the judges King had criticized in his letter.  

The two remaining county judges on the criminal docket both used to work as prosecutors for King. The judges who were removed — Landt and Thompson — were both up for re-election, with primaries on August 28. Landt ran against a current assistant state attorney working under King. That candidate proudly posted Landt’s reassignment letter on his campaign website, boasting that his competitor has been removed from the criminal bench.

It remains a mystery why a chief judge, who is charged with neutral oversight of a judicial district the size of Connecticut, took such an action after receiving King’s letter. Ruling for the defense, or not doling out sufficient “punishment,” is not legitimate grounds for removal. This would be true even if the judges were consistently getting it wrong on the facts or the law — but they weren’t. Florida’s appellate courts regularly affirmed these judges over King’s objections.

Going forward, how can people who appear in Marion County Criminal Court feel they are getting a fair hearing or trial — knowing their judges have effectively been selected by the prosecution, or that they might fear removal if they rule on behalf of the defense?

What State Attorney Brad King did — seeking to influence who is on the criminal bench by sending a scornful demand letter to judges — is highly irregular, to say the least. On Robbins’ part, accepting the unreasonable demands of a state attorney is even more inappropriate. Her decision, shortly following King’s request, gives the appearance, at the very least, that she is easily pressured and, at worst, that she is biased toward the prosecution over the accused.

A prosecutor’s grievance should never become policy. Prosecutors aren’t kings and they don’t get to issue decrees. They — and the judges who oversee their cases — are public servants, accountable to us all.  

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Anonymous

Your facts are wrong, but don’t let something silly like the truth interfere with your false narrative. There was a motion to disqualify Judge Landt that was filed prior to his removal. Both Landt and Thompson claim that they requested removal, ironically. But, again, don’t let that get in the way of your trumped up story designed to scare people. Carry on...most people in Marion County couldn’t care less about the ACLU anyway...

Anonymous

The motion was never heard and therefore never ruled on. And does anyone actually believe Landt and Thompson voluntarily requested removal? Everyone knows there was pressure put on them. Get your facts straight.

Anonymous

"Both Landt and Thompson claim that they requested removal, ironically." EXACTLY. They probably didn't request removal voluntarily. The motion to disqualify is a red herring/non-issue because the motion was never heard or decided on. Why wouldn't the people of Marion County care about the ACLU, an organization who defends the rights of everyone? The people of Marion County need to know what their shady lead prosecutor is doing. The ACLU cares about the people in Marion County regardless of their thoughts on the ACLU. Kudos to the ACLU for shedding light on this shady situation.

Anonymous

A motion to disqualify in one case? Or from all cases? And what was the basis? But let's not let the absence of facts get in the way of being informed. And can you show me a source that Landt and Thompson requested removal or was it a request for reassignment. I know why you say what you do about the ACLU, it is because you like what you have and screw everyone else.

Berwick

Touche... I feel this is a great article and there are many avenues of promoting it in Marion County circles through social media.

Cherlynn

After watching John Oliver explain how the Florida Governor is keeping non violent felons fro ever regaining their voting rights. He is Republican and most of these persons are Black. There is a clear cut thing going on to make sure these people who would most certainly not vote Republican from ever getting their rights back. It is clear cut discrimination against Blacks to keep them from voting against the republican party members. I hope the ACLU can fight this cause in Florida to help over a million persons regain their rights to vote.

Berwick

Judge Robbins heard a DCF case of mine. Removed my child a few days after being born over hearsay from a niche of hostile witnesses involved with my domestically violent ex's family and with material evidence. I feel she did it because I have a mental health diagnosis of schizoaffective bipolar type alone. The DCF case manager involved never even attempted to reunify me I feel for the same reason. I did not walk around talking to myself or anything; I was just not 100% for a short time. I had flawless mental health records for the prior 5 yrs to pregnancy and was off of meds 9 months as requested by my Psych Dr. It took a month after pregnancy to obtain flawless mental health record for another year and half and at that time I took in my Psych ARNP, from the Centers whom I consistently saw since birth by DCF recommendation, to court to testify on my behalf. The ARNP gave a strong, flawless testimony as a expert witness that I had been doing beyond well for the past 15 months. Ok, I get it, maybe take my newborn until the ARNP reported to DCF that I was ok, which was 1 1/2 months after giving birth? But Judge Robbins decided to rule for me to have supervised visits ( which mind you I had to pay min wage per hour to an assistant to monitor which left me with 4 hrs a week of visit time with my infant) despite my ARNP testifying and the entry of a flawless, ongoing 15 mth mental health record. She left my infant with my ex whom starved her, neglected her and had her removed from him for doing so and becoming 100% addicted to heroin and meth when she became 3 in another county. All along I protested him having custody for similar issues to the case manager and judge since day one. No one listened. They deemed me the "schizophrenic who was imagining things" with no medical knowledge of my reality and my ARNP disagreeing. I was awarded main house custody by the other counties court at the end of the DCF case. Her wrong judgments have tormented me, yes, but worse, they have physically and mentally devastated my child.

Anonymous

And was it not important to mention that the judges who were removed were entitled to some due process? If they were removed without a properly supported complaint according to some judicial ethics procedure, isn’t that constitutional violation worth mentioning? And if they were removed according to a Florida process of judicial removal and not merely because of this prosecutor’s letter, that’s also worthy of pointing out. There are more questions than answers in this article.

What happened is certainly outrageous. This is a typical Trump trend, and I salute and thank the ACLU for everything it is doing to defend Americans’ rights and liberties in these dangerous times.

Anonymous

The entire system is corrupt. Why is it that the prosecutors can go after citizens no matter how strong a case they have and do so by using the people’s money! They do this knowing that in the long run that they will get even with the people by bankrupting them becauae they know they will have to pay their bar buddies. The system needs to change where the citizens should have the same peoples money that the prosecution uses to defend themselves. Think about that! A citizen can win their case, but in the long run they didn’t win shut! They lost 10’s of thousands of dollars.

The system is corrupt. Maybe we the people need our own Star Chamber for them!

Anonymous

The entire Marion County court system is corrupt and saturated with good ole boys. Those same judges were bold enough to create a special separate account to redirect probationer's monies (see http://www.ocala.com/news/20180223/county-judges-redirected-money-to-fund-diversion-courts) - as well has having all the monies collection from the participants of the diversionary courts (payable via money order to the Marion Board of County Commissioners). People of Marion County will never get a fair day in court.

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