Legal Ethics

Judge Critical of 'Broken' Pretrial System in Fla. Faces Discipline

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The future of an outspoken Florida judge is in the hands of the state judicial ethics authorities.

At issue is whether St. Lucie County Judge Cliff Barnes is a champion of justice trying to fix a system with too many pretrial defendants in lockup because they can’t afford counsel or a judge who overstepped his bounds and should be removed from the bench, the reports.

This week, the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission heard testimony for two days about Barnes, who is accused of violating judicial ethics canons for publicly criticizing other judges and the legal system. The commission will next report to the state supreme court, which could reprimand Barnes or remove him from office.

Discipline was sought for Barnes after he penned a March 16, 2006, guest column for a local paper, then filed a petition with the 4th District Court of Appeal. In both instances Barnes criticized the handling of first appearance hearings by judges, prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement.

Michael Schneider, a special counsel for the Judicial Qualifications Commission, is quoted as saying that Barnes could have handled his complaints a different way.

“The sad fact is that Judge Barnes knew that what he was doing was inappropriate,” Schneider said. “There are many ways to address concerns within the framework of the (judicial) system. And when you step outside that framework, you lose your credibility.”

But Barnes is unapologetic. His lawyer, Donnie Murrell, argued that Barnes saw a criminal justice system that had “broken down…decided something had to be done and committed himself to doing it,” the publication reports.

“You may be critical of his methods,” Murrell said, “but you cannot be critical of his goal.”

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