Racial bias in the courtroom undercuts justice

Miami Herald Editorial Board

08/20/15- Miami- Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Stephen Millan, 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida.
08/20/15- Miami- Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Stephen Millan, 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida. J. Albert Diaz

In 2014, the Editorial Board recommended now-disgraced Judge Stephen Millan for the Miami-Dade Circuit Court. “Mr. Millan has a more roll-up-your-sleeves, man-of-the-people approach ... that is refreshing. The bench needs that type of thinking.”

What the bench doesn’t need, however, is one more bigoted judge who might be compounding the unfair disparities of Florida’s already biased sentencing outcomes.

Millan resigned Friday after seeing the writing on the wall. Good riddance. He duped us.

Millan stood accused of using an obscure, but still offensive, racial slur — “moolie” — while discussing an African-American defendant with the man’s defense attorney and referred to another black defendant’s family as “thugs.” The first transgression took place in 2016, the second, in 2017. In addition, the very conversation with the defense attorney, taking place outside of a courtroom setting, in and of itself was inappropriate.

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Millan’s case was brought before the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigated the incidents. He admitted to using the terms in his capacity as judge. “Moolie,” it seems, was an oldie but goodie from his days growing up in New York.

The JQC concluded: “The use of racially derogatory and demeaning language to describe litigants, criminal defendants or members of the public, even behind closed doors or during off-the-record conversations, erodes public confidence in a fair and impartial judiciary,” wrote Judge Kristina Marx, chair of the JQC.

No argument there. However, the JQC recommended that Millan face what amounted to a slap on the wrist: a 30-day unpaid suspension, a $5,000 fine and a public reprimand.

Fortunately, the Florida Supreme Court, which customarily reviews JQC recommendations, better understood the gravity of Millan’s comments: “The court ... disapproves the proposed sanctions,” the justices ruled. “We remand for further proceedings to include a full hearing before the Judicial Qualifications Commission in order to fully develop the facts regarding any misconduct that occurred, so that the court, in determining the appropriate discipline, will be apprised of all the facts and circumstances bearing on the alleged violations.”

Apparently, not eager to defend himself at a full hearing, Millan submitted his letter of resignation to Gov. Rick Scott on Friday. We urge Scott to put merit and diversity above politics in appointing a replacement. Millan’s offensive comments dealt the justice system’s integrity a severe blow. African Americans, whether plaintiffs or defendants, must be confident that they will get a fair hearing and a justifiable outcome.

Regrettably, that has not been the case in Florida. Judges, despite their protestations of fairness, judges are not colorblind. In 2016, a comprehensive statewide investigation by the Sarasota Herald Tribune found that judges’ personal biases contributed to racial disparities in sentencing. African Americans bore the brunt of harsher penalties when compared with whites similarly charged. “Democratic judges are more evenhanded than Republicans. Black judges are more equitable than whites, and women are fairer than men,” the story began. Interestingly, some African-American judges and — in South Florida — Democratic judges were harder on black defendants.

Both the Legislature and the Florida Bar should weigh in here. And it’s imperative that, this judicial election season, voters do their homework, attend candidates forums and ask hard questions. Don’t be duped.