Sad state of Polk County judicial system exposed, lessons for all Floridians

— from our Polk County reporter —

In Polk County there is a contested race between incumbent judge Susan Barber (formerly Susan Flood) and a local attorney, Carson Bassett.  At present, agitated voters in America paradoxically show little interest, and even less enthusiasm, in examining the judges they elect. Yet many of those those very same agitated voters will continue to complain about what is wrong with America.

eqjustice_590_396In many ways, judges are the most important people in the country. They are entrusted to uphold the laws that make our country great, and to serve as a backstop against arbitrary or unlawful decisions by bureaucrats, law enforcement and politicians. Judges served as a check and balance against the otherwise unappealable actions of others.

However, most judicial races may be decided by the flip of a coin by the voter, a voted based on likability, or else a vote for the incumbent. This is a sad and dangerous state of affairs, one that will diminish the future health and well-being of our nation.

bassett_barber
(from the Lakeland Ledger)

The present election contest between Bassett and Barber (pictured right) illuminates the situation. In early June, an elections complaint was filed against Bassett. The complainant, an attorney and declared supporter of Barber, complained about Bassett’s wife being on the host committee for the re-election of the state attorney, and called it an attempt to “evade” Florida law.

However, the host committee participation occurred before Bassett was a candidate, presumes that Bassett can tell his wife how to exercise her free speech rights, and is quite irrelevant to the issue of which is the best person to serve as a judge.

There have been letters to the editor of the Lakeland Ledger, the dominant newspaper in Polk County. In one such letter, the writer also focused on the deeds of others (not the candidates), and failed to mention the Florida Supreme Court reprimand against judge Susan Barber Flood,

There is every indication that Barber/Flood has tried to distance herself from her former and disgraced name last name “Flood”. Her past misdeeds on the bench are relevant, and that is why voters should know that “Susan Barber” is “Susan Flood”.

Barber Flood agreed that “her actions have the effect of lessening the public’s confidence in the judiciary” and also “admitted to violations of the Judicial Canons”. Barber Flood did not dispute that she had an “inappropriate relationship” with her bailiff, a person over whom she exercised supervisory authority. 

Polk_County_Sex_Scandal___Investigations_778460000_20130724233149_640_480A person can still reasonably decide to vote for Barber Flood (pictured on left), but the above statements are in quotation marks because they are facts detailed in the Florida Supreme Court case file. Bassett has been accused of “playing loose with the rules”, but Barber didn’t just “play loose with the rules,” she violated them and admits that she did.

Supporters of Barber Flood invariably claim that her inappropriate relationship with her bailiff was a “personal matter”, and therefore should not be discussed.  Such reasoning ignores the fact that her “personal matter” occurred at her workplace, and involved a person who was her direct subordinate.

Sexual harassment case law tells us that Barber Flood’s  behavior is a recipe for disaster. Her bailiff, James “Bubba” Maxcy III, would have faced termination had he not already retired by the time the investigation was completed, demonstrating that abuse of subordinates can have disastrous consequences for those subordinates.

Integrity is often defined as what a person does when nobody is watching.  During the investigation, Barber Flood was left alone in a room and video surveillance showed her opening an investigator’s folder marked “Confidential” and perusing the information isnide.  No criminal charges followed from that incident, but  Barber Flood was clearly found be lacking integrity, which is a vital characteristic for a judge.

scalesofjustiocetiltedUnfortunately, Susan Barber is not the only example of what is wrong with the judicial system in Polk County. In 2014, judge Beth Harlan was accused of approving false time cards for her former judicial assistant, Alisha Rupp, so Rupp would get paid for time she didn’t work.

Harlan “gave up her spot on the bench in exchange for prosecutors dropping criminal charges against her.”  Yes, that is a direct quote from this ABC news report – hence the quotation marks.

This admission of a quid pro quo, that resignation averts prosecution, is a stunning admission of the cozy and inappropriately close relationship that poisons the Polk judicial system. All residents in Polk County would also like to be treated so kindly by the State Attorney, but only privileged insiders are eligible.

The threat of prosecution unless you resign has happened more than once in Polk County. Lakeland Police Chief Lisa Womack called it “criminal extortion” in a letter she sent to Governor Rick Scott. Womack was asking for a special prosecutor to investigate the State Attorney Jerry Hill for making such a threat against her.

simpsons-judge_constance_harmBarber was appointed as a judge, not elected. She was appointed by a politician, Governor Charlie Christ, in August 2008. Her father, Jesse Clay Barber Jr., was also appointed by a politician, namely Governor Bob Graham (in 1983).

To be clear, there is nothing improper about being appointed to the bench – it is part of Florida law. But when a politician makes the appointment, it is by definition “political.” And that it why it is paramount that voters decide who should be their judges – not politicians.

It’s a tragedy if voter apathy reduces America’s rule of law to the mere flip of a coin in a voting booth by an uninformed voter. Then there are those don’t even bother to vote, because this election is occurring during a primary instead of a presidential election.

People have a responsibility to vote, even if they are inconvenienced by it. Others have given their lives to uphold this right to vote.  Judges uphold America’s laws, but history will judge the judgment of America’s voters….or lack thereof.

 As always, the Guardian reports and the readers decide.

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