Judge Gets 4-Month Suspension For Fistfight With Public Defender

Fighting the Public Defender is Bad – A Judge Disregarding Fundamental Rights is Worse

Remember the Florida judge who got into a fistfight with the public defender outside the courtroom? Here’s the video:

A note: While I was able to figure out how to embed the video, I couldn’t figure out a way to not make it auto-play. Sorry world.

The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission has issued him a suspension for four months, as well as a fine and mental health counseling for anger management. Frankly I’m surprised they didn’t make him step down. They should have.

The reason Judge Murphy got into a fistfight with the public defender is that the public defender was refusing to waive his clients’ right to a speedy trial. In Florida, every defendant was the right to a speedy trial, meaning their case must go to trial within 90 days if they are charged with a misdemeanor, or 175 days if they are charged with a felony. The defendant has the option to waive that right, but only the defendant (through the advice of their attorney) can make that decision. Not the judge or the prosecutor.

The right to a speedy trial is contained in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. Some people think it was derived from the Magna Carta, or even earlier. The point of the right to a speedy trial is to prevent the government from arresting someone and holding them in jail (or on bail / pre-trial release where a single slip-up can land them in jail) awaiting trial indefinitely.

Choosing to not waive the right to a speedy trial has several strategic advantages as well as disadvantages. It shortens the time for the prosecutor to gather evidence and witnesses, and put on their trial. If a witness can’t make the trial date the case can’t be rescheduled outside the speedy trial window. This can sometimes create situations where essential witnesses are unavailable for trial, and so the prosecution cannot prove their case. For the public defenders (who handle a high volume of cases) it also means that cases don’t hang around their office and clog up their schedules.

There are disadvantages to not waiving the right to a speedy trial. Waiving the right gives the attorney more time to research legal issues about the case, talk to witnesses, and gather favorable evidence, so they the attorney can file a motion to dismiss or a motion to suppress evidence if it’s warranted. From the prosecutor’s perspective criminal cases often don’t get better with age – witnesses forget things or change addresses.

Ultimately it’s up to the defendant to decide whether or not to waive the right. Not the judge. So while it’s bad that Judge Murphy got into a fight with the public defender, to me it’s even worse that the judge thought it was his right to tell the attorney to waive the defendant’s fundamental, constitutionally-guaranteed right to a speedy trial.