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"If we fail to check the power of the judiciary, I predict that we will eventually live under judicial tyranny."

When Judges Fight Judicial Corruption


Susan McMillan

Judge Matthew E. McMillan, a former police officer and prosecuting attorney, had won his seat on the bench from an entrenched incumbent in a public election.  The courageous judge then had to fight against insurmountable odds to have his duly-elected seat returned to him after it was taken away through an unprecedented series of hostile actions mounted by a vindictive judicial establishment stunned by its electoral defeat.

Our life has been a nightmare since my husband decided to run for judge in our town, where no lawyer had challenged an incumbent judge in over 30 years. He had no lifelong aspiration of being a judge, had never thought of entering politics, and in fact was focused more on the counseling profession at the time. But he saw a system that was broken and thought that he could help fix it. He's always been that kind of man. He properly criticized both the legal system and George K. Brown Jr., the sitting judge he was running against, and he proposed a platform of common sense legal reforms, such as mandatory treatment for convicted spouse abusers and drug addicts, a domestic violence court, a method to increase collection of court costs, victim restitution, and so forth.

As the campaign picked up steam, the "Good Old Boy Club" of Manatee County, a real club with an official membership consisting of local judges and politicians, sent a "messenger" to threaten my husband and me. The messenger was Paul Sharff, president of the Manatee County Republican Executive Committee, Jeb Bush's campaign organizer, and the business partner of the local Sheriff's wife, a developer. Basically, Sharff informed us that our lives would be ruined if we broke the "unwritten rule" that you don't run against a sitting judge.

He told us that, despite the fact other judges recognized George Brown's well-known reputation as a lazy judge who was rarely in the courthouse, they would rally behind him and use their positions to insure that Brown stayed in office. Judge Brown had been awarded the Caspar Award by the Young Lawyers Division of the Manatee County Bar in honor of his penchant for being but a ghost around the courthouse.

Sharff told us that we needed to know up front we were not just running against George Brown but all the judges in town, because sitting judges expected to have their jobs for life. He explained that they couldn't afford to let my husband start a trend of judicial election, and that they would destroy both of us if we did not take heed. The Good Old Boy Club and Brown were calling in every favor, pressuring people, politicians, and businessmen, including the sheriff and law enforcement, to ensure his victory. Sharff told us that it would be dirty and they would stop at nothing: drugs might be planted on us, our phones could be tapped, both our businesses would be ruined, rumors would be spread about us, they would use their contacts with the newspapers to discredit everything about us, truth would be irrelevant, and we would never work in Manatee County again.

He emphasized that sitting judges must be assured of their jobs for life. If we would choose another position, say county commissioner, or if my husband waited for an appointment, we might get the Good Old Boy Club's support. But running against a sitting judge was out of the question. Sorry.

Naïve as we were, we ignored Sharff's advice and proceeded to knock on doors (5,600 in all), while the opposition did everything they could to get us to quit, short of burning a cross on our front lawn. It became so terrifying that we sent our three-year-old north to stay with his grandparents because we feared for our safety. Obscenities were spray-painted on our front door, our vehicles were pelted with eggs, threatening phone calls came in the middle of the night, our supporters' tires were slashed, and twice a brick was hurled through my office window. Then came the frivolous bar grievances and, with the assistance of the local paper, a smear campaign like you wouldn't believe.

As Sharff had predicted, truth became irrelevant. We were permitted no interviews and received no media coverage, while the incumbent received the endorsement of every politician, every newspaper, and every organization, including the Fraternal Order of Police and the Police Benevolent Association, despite the fact that my husband was a former police officer. We were not even interviewed before the endorsements were granted, in violation of many of the organizations' written by-laws. Neither did we solicit nor raise a dime from attorneys, while the incumbent made his phone calls and raked in the legal community's bucks.

The only supporters we had were the citizens.

When we won the campaign, our opponents were in shock!

The incumbent and his supporters in the Good Old Boy Club and Bar Association had spent the day of the election blowing up balloons for his victory party, while we spent the day shaking hands at the polling places until they closed. The Good Old Boys had never lost control of an election, and as the election results came in, witnesses overheard them vowing, "We'll see to it McMillan never takes the bench."

They got to work right away. Grievances were filed with the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) and the Bar Association the day after the election, before my husband even took the bench, and they have never ceased. With the help of local judges, my husband was accused and convicted of everything in the book, in particular his "lying, deceitful campaign rhetoric, which has impugned the integrity of the judiciary and eroded the public's confidence in the judiciary." He was judged "beyond rehabilitation and unfit to hold office."

In the two-and-a-half years he served as judge, my husband implemented the reforms he had promised, and the public was absolutely thrilled with his conduct on the bench. He received unprecedented praise from court watchers, Crimestoppers, homeowners' associations, prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims, defendants, their families, and various other citizens' groups. News of his successes and innovations appeared in community newletters, official minutes of community organizations, letters to the editor, and even some local TV coverage. But to the judiciary, all that was irrelevant.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission's so-called "trial" was a Star Chamber, kangaroo court like no other. Allegations concerning the campaign bore little resemblance to the actual campaign literature. The leaps of logic and the twisting of words they put on his statements must be seen to be believed. Citizen courtroom observers were stunned at the guilty-on-almost-all-charges verdict and the recommendation for removal despite the total lack of evidence of my husband's unfitness to serve and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A stream of lawyers who regularly practiced in front of him testified to what an outstanding judge he had been, and that they never had reason to question his impartiality or fairness. The prosecution could produce not a single witness who had observed him in court to testify that he was unfit.

The JCQ's only witness to testify as to my husband's lack of fitness was Chief Judge Tom Gallen, an admitted member of the Good Old Boy Club that had threatened my husband and me, and who admitted he had never observed my husband in court.

When the Rule of Sequestration was invoked and Judge Gallen was excluded from the Courtroom during the trial, he secretly ordered county telecommunications workers to run hidden microphone and video wires directly from the courtroom to his chambers so that he could observe the trial before his testimony. Talk about corrupt! The county worker who did the job came forward in the midst of the trial and testified about his orders to run the wires to Gallen's office. But did that stop the JQC from relying on this Good Old Boy as their only witness as to McMillan's lack of fitness? Of course not. Even after he was impeached on almost every statement he made, Judge Gallen, perjury and all, remained the JQC's star witness. The arrogance of these people is shocking; they get caught in their own corruption and continue with impunity.

The JQC convicted my husband not only of campaign violations, but of post-bench misconduct, despite all the lawyers who practiced in front of him, both prosecutors and defense attorneys, who testified to just the opposite!

Among other things, the JQC relied upon records proven in court to be fraudulent. They also altered a transcript from a bond hearing over which my husband presided in order to create their so-called "facts," even though an actual video tape of the transcript in question was submitted as evidence! If you compared the record and trial transcripts with the findings, conclusions and recommendations of the JQC, you would sit in utter amazement, your mouth agape.

Of course, if you had been following the version offered by the newspapers, whose editors, we have since learned, also belong to the Good Old Boy Club, you wouldn't be the least bit surprised. You would read almost daily that Judge McMillan lies, is biased, deliberately inserts himself into cases he should not hear, misleads the public, is incapable of remorse, etc, etc. You would think that Mathew McMillan is worse than Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy, and Danny Rollins all rolled into one for what he tried to do to the legal profession and our noble judiciary.

Did I mention that we later discovered that the threats delivered by the Good Old Boy Club messenger early in the campaign were actually caught inadvertently on audio tape? My husband had been practicing a campaign speech into a tape recorder when the messenger, Paul Sharff, arrived unexpectedly at our office to deliver his message. After the campaign, when we discovered the tape, we handed it over to the US Attorney's Office. Everything was on it. An investigation into Manatee County public corruption was begun. Paul Sharff took the fifth amendment to every question we asked, except for his name and address. No matter. My husband was still found guilty of lying about the incident, despite the tape and all. It was so amazing.

Over 1,300 citizens have signed the amicus briefs filed with the Florida Supreme Court demanding that they allow my husband to remain in office. The briefs condemn the corruption of the local judiciary and decry the illogical and unfair findings and tactics of the JQC prosecution, which has ignored the misconduct of other sitting judges, no matter how egregious. You won't find mention of this unprecedented public outcry in the newspapers. Only editorials like: "McMillan should go," "The High Court must restore dignity to the bench," "Unfit to serve," "Credibility crisis," "Cancel the McMillan show," and "Good-bye McMillan."

The Florida Supreme Court has never disagreed with the JQC. We knew they were not about to start now, even though a group of citizens calling themselves Florida Supreme Court watchers drove the eight hours to Tallahassee and sat in the Courtroom wearing "Keep Judge McMillan" tags the day of his oral arguments. The security guard at the Supreme Court told us he had never seen anything like it in all his years at the Courthouse. But the voters' opinion really didn't matter. The justices fear the wrath of the judges and lawyers they would anger by keeping my husband on the bench more than they fear the voters. And in this business, politics always prevails over truth.

After he is disrobed, disbarrment proceedings will most likely begin. The story just wouldn't be complete unless they ended his legal career entirely.

The JQC is the organization that allows this corruption to continue. As long as they are in power, serving as the lapdog for powerful judges whose misconduct they ignore, they can remove any challenger who is naïve or foolhardy enough to run against an incumbent and upset their cozy fraternity. The JQC has unchecked power, unlimited resources, and no obligation to be truthful or reasonable. This is scary. What is scarier still is that the Florida Supreme Court gives the JQC free reign and routinely rubberstamps its findings.

My husband's supporters would like to pass a constitutional amendment demanding that all aspects, meetings and records of the JQC, be open to the public. Their secrecy enables them to get away with their corruption. Also, the JQC should be composed of independent citizens instead of being dominated by governor-appointed judges and lawyers. Is there anyone in Florida who can help us with the language for such an amendment?

On August 16, 2001, two days after the above story was written, the Florida Supreme Court, disregarding the evidence in this case, unabashedly affirmed the position and recommendations of the Judicial Qualifications Commission almost word for word. Judge McMillan was found unfit to serve, and the High Court ordered his removal from office so that he would "no longer tarnish the robes of justice." He was given 10 days to file a Motion for a Rehearing, a formality that would simply postpone the inevitable.

Judge McMillan did not plan to appeal the High Court's recommendation of removal. However, in the days following the ruling, he was besieged with emails and phone calls from citizens across the country who were concerned with corruption within the judiciary and the voters' loss of their rights. On August 26, in an unprecedented move, Judge McMillan filed a Motion for a Rehearing, but with a twist. He requested a Jury Trial by Independent Citizens rather than the group of judges, lawyers, and political appointees who make up the JQC. He expected that his motion would be summarily denied and that the Florida Bar would add this unorthodox request to the list of his "crimes."

The motion was unanimously denied without comment. And before the motion was even ruled upon, the Florida Bar Association initiated a disciplinary proceeding against his law license. They offered him a suspension, provided that he stipulate to having lied about his opponent and the judiciary during his 1998 campaign. On December 3, 2001 my husband submitted his letter of resignation to the Florida Bar, stating: "I am simply not willing to admit to violations that I did not commit in order to save my law license. I am a man of honor and will admit my mistakes. However, I will not compromise on the truth or my principles; therefore, I am resigning from the Bar..." [see PDF].

Meanwhile, the Judicial Nominating Commission submitted George Brown's name to Governor Jeb Bush for reappointment. Governor Bush subsequently reappointed Judge Brown to the county bench, thereby disfranchising the 14,000 voters of Manatee County who had voted Brown out of office.

The Author:  Susan McMillan is the wife and campaign manager of Judge Mathew E. McMillan, the prosecuting attorney from Manatee County, Florida who unseated incumbent Judge George K. Brown Jr. in a public election 52 to 48% in 1998.  Her commentary first appeared in the August 22 and September 14, 2001 issues of the J.A.I.L. News Journal and is reprinted here in somewhat modified form by permission of the author.  In Florida, J.A.I.L. stands for Judicial Accountability Initiative Law, a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would provide for special citizen grand juries that would have the power to investigate complaints against judges and fine or remove them from the bench.  (See www.jail4judges.org.)

  1. John Gibeaut, "BENCH BATTLE: Trial judges often keep their seats without facing election.  So when a Florida lawyer challenged an incumbent, he rocked the de facto merit selection system," ABA Journal, 86 A.B.A.J. 42, August, 2000.

  2. Howard M. Unger, "Counsel calls for McMillan's ouster," The Sarasota Herald Tribune, Nov. 3, 2000.

  3. Eric Alan Barton, "Power brokers or social club?" Manatee Herald-Tribune, June 23, 2001.

  4. Craig Pittman, "Supreme Court removes judge," St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 18, 2001.

  5. Irina Slutsky, "Judge fighting removal from the bench," Bradenton Herald - East Manatee Herald, Aug. 28, 2001.

  6. "Motion to Intervene as Amicus Curiae for Limited Purpose of Expressing That the Removal of Judge Matt McMillan From the Bench Would Erode the Public's Confidence in the Judiciary and Disenfranchise the Voters of Manatee County," Inquiry Concerning a Judge, Supreme Court of Florida, SC Case No. 95,866, 07-703; Matthew E. McMillan, Case No. 99-01, 00-17; filed February 16, 2001.

  7. "Addendum to Motion to Intervene as Amicus Curiae Regarding Findings, Conclusions, and Recommendations by the Hearing Panel of the Judicial Qualifications Commission Pertaining to the Honorable Judge McMillan," Inquiry Concerning a Judge, Supreme Court of Florida, SC Case No. 95,866, 07-703; Matthew E. McMillan, Case No. 99-01, 00-17; filed subsequent to prior motion.

  8. "Motion for Rehearing Before an Impartial Jury of Citizens, Or In the Alternative, an Independent Review of the Record by an Impartial Panel of Citizens," Inquiry Concerning a Judge, Supreme Court of Florida, SC Case No. 95,866, 07-703; Matthew E. McMillan, Case No. 99-01, 00-17; filed August, 26, 2001.
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