A Broward judge is under fire after she repeatedly snapped at a frail inmate who later died at her Lauderhill home.
Broward Chief Administrative Judge Jack Tuter said Saturday that he is telling Circuit Court Judge Merrilee Ehrlich not to return to the courthouse because of how she treated Sandra Twiggs, 59, who appeared before Ehrlich last week on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge.
“In light of recent events we have decided Judge Ehrlich will be told not to return to the courthouse as her retirement is effective June 30,” Tuter said. “I will be working this weekend to find a substitute to cover Judge Ehrlich’s [family court] division.”
Ehrlich, who was first elected in 2008 had planned to retire on June 30, was serving a rotation over first appearance court last weekend, setting preliminary bail amounts for the most recently arrested inmates at the Broward jail.
Tuter told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Saturday that Ehrlich filed her formal retirement paperwork two weeks ago, before this incident.
First appearance hearings are streamed on the internet and recorded.
“We never knew anything about this video until yesterday,” said Carolyn Porter, Twiggs’ goddaughter. “She tried to tell us how they treated her, but she had anxiety, and every time she tried to talk about it, she couldn’t breathe.”
Twiggs died Wednesday in her sleep.
Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes lamented the fact that the video did not surface until after Twiggs’ death.
“It was bad enough that it happened,” he said, “but it’s compounded by the fact that she never even had the opportunity to get an apology or to have her dignity restored before she passed.”
Twiggs showed up at for her court appearance in a wheelchair, coughing because she suffered from asthma and chronic lung disease.
Ehrlich and the defendant were not in the same room — Twiggs appeared in a live video feed from a north Broward jail, while Ehrlich was at the main courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Ehrlich expressed frustration when Twiggs noted her ailments and said she needed her breathing treatments. “I’m not here to talk about your breathing treatment,” Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich allowed Twiggs to be released without bond, but repeatedly interrupted Twiggs as she was trying to speak. “Ma’am, don’t even say yes. Just listen,” she said, explaining that Twiggs would need to check in with a court office after her release. “You have to arrange for someone to carry you if you cannot get there yourself,” Ehrlich said.
Twiggs’ daughter, who called the police during a dispute late on April 13, has been despondent since seeing the video, Porter said.
“She’s devastated,” said Porter. “She doesn’t want to talk to anyone. It’s eating her up inside.”
She said Twiggs’ family now understands what she couldn’t express about her experience in court.
“I don’t know how the judicial system could let a judge treat these people like animals,” she said. “If they don’t take her off the bench immediately, they need to get her into some classes so she can learn how to treat people with dignity and respect.”
Efforts to reach Ehrlich by phone and e-mail on Friday and Saturday were unsuccessful.
Tuter said he would contact Twiggs’ family to apologize.
“I am saddened and disappointed in the way Judge Ehrlich behaved on the video. Her behavior cannot be condoned,” he said.
Video of the exchange was posted on YouTube under an account called “South Florida Corruption,” then as a comment on the courthouse gossip site JAABlog on Thursday, which is how Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein learned about it.
Finkelstein wrote in a letter to Tuter on Friday: “Ehrlich demonstrated aggressive and tyrannical behavior and revealed her lack of emotional fitness to sit on the bench.” Finkelstein complained about Ehrlich’s demeanor through both days on the bench in first appearance court last weekend. The judge interrupted attorneys, raised her voice, and reduced one defendant to tears, threatening to have her forcibly removed from the hearing.
“I was outraged,” Finkelstein said Saturday. “What I saw there was somebody that is not mentally and emotionally fit to sit in judgment of human beings. … Nobody should suffer attacks like that because a judge is having a bad day.”
Attorney Bill Gelin, who runs the JAABlog site, contacted Twiggs’ family on Friday to confirm that she had died.
“No one had spoken to them or apologized on behalf of the legal system for the despicable way Twiggs was treated until I called,” said Gelin. “This was sickening to me, so I did it for them.”