Miami-Dade County

Miami judge who used racial slur against black man under fire from legal groups

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Stephen Millan used a racial slur to describe a black defendant.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Stephen Millan used a racial slur to describe a black defendant. Facebook

Several prominent black legal organizations are calling for a Miami judge to be removed from the bench after he used an obscure racial slur, which he later blamed on his New York City upbringing.

The groups, including Miami's oldest African-American bar association and the National Black Prosecutors Association, have written letters questioning whether Circuit Judge Stephen Millan can serve as an unbiased figure on the bench after using the slur to describe a black defendant.

According to a report released last month by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, Millan was in his chambers talking with a defense lawyer in 2016 when he called the defendant a "moolie."

The slur is a shortened version of "mulignan" — a Sicilian slur used to describe black people or somebody with a dark complexion, according to the commission's report on the case. The word "literally translates as 'eggplant,"' the report said. The following year, the commission said, Millan also referred to relatives and supporters of a black defendant as "thugs."

The Florida Supreme Court will ultimately decide how to punish Millan; the judicial commission has recommended a 30-day suspension, a public reprimand and a $5,000 fine.

But a handful of legal organizations are urging more severe action. The latest to chime in was the National Juvenile Defender Center in Washington, D.C., which on Tuesday afternoon sent a letter to Miami's chief judge calling for the ouster of Millan from the juvenile division where he now presides.

The organization said it was "deeply concerned" that Millan was overseeing juvenile-justice cases where "children of color are overrepresented at every stage" and families have "little confidence" that he can be fair given his racially charged remarks.

"Juvenile court is not kiddie court. It is not a stepping stone, and it should not be used as a place to house wayward judges with the belied that juvenile court is where they will the least harm," NJDC Executive Director Mary Ann Scali wrote. "Indeed, juvenile court is the place where a judge can do the most harm."

Miami-Dade Chief Judge Bertila Soto said in a statement: "Because this matter is still under review by the Florida Supreme Court, it would not be appropriate to comment. The Eleventh Judicial Circuit continues to be committed to providing justice with dignity and respect toward all who come before us.”

Millan, 52, is of Italian and Puerto Rican descent. His attorney declined to comment because of the ongoing legal process.

One of his prominent supporters, former Florida Bar President Ramon Abadin, said Millan was wrong to use the words and is "distraught." But he said Millan was a hard-working and dedicated judge who had worked to better minority communities.

"Those two statements he made are not the measure of the man," Abadin said. "It would be better for society, for us in Miami-Dade County, if organizations calling for his removal would actually get to know the man."

Millan accepted responsibility for the slur and voluntarily took diversity training. Millan blamed his upbringing as a "youngster" in multi-ethnic New York. "It was not unusual for my friends and I to occasionally use slur words when referring to others, including our friends and ourselves,” he told the JQC.

But that was not enough to address concerns from several local legal groups,

"We do not think that there is a place on the bench for a person who thinks and acts this way. This judge has eroded the public trust," wrote the Wilkie D. Ferguson Bar Association, the oldest black bar association in Miami-Dade.

Another letter, signed by the black prosecutors association, the Gwen Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association and the Haitian Lawyers Association, said a one-month suspension was not enough.

"The judge's deeply troubling language, reflecting deeply held biases or a callous insensitivity, requires disciplinary sanction much more severe," according to a letter sent to the Florida Supreme Court.

Millan, a lawyer with experience handling immigration, criminal defense and bankruptcy cases, was elected in 2014 and was placed in the criminal division of Miami-Dade circuit court, overseeing felony cases. He was transferred to the "Unified Children’s Court" in January, as his case with the JQC was under investigation.

No matter what division Millan is in, legal experts say, he will always face questions about his bias and impartiality.

"If he continues to sit on the bench, you will see a wave of attorneys filing motions to recuse, whether they are lawyers of color, or representing clients of color," said Melba Pearson, the deputy director of Miami's American Civil Liberties Union and a former prosecutor.