Judicial Review

Circuit Courtrooms generate a lot of headlines, but rarely because of the person wearing the robes. Judge John Merrett is a different story. Since being elected in 2007, he’s made news almost as frequently as the parade of humanity that moves through his courtroom. There was the time, soon after taking the bench, that he pulled a handgun in court when the father of a victim attacked a handcuffed defendant. Merrett didn’t fire his weapon, or even aim it, but he did subsequently release the father on his own recognizance, though he was charged with a felony for the attack. Merrett told the reporters he couldn’t blame the man.

Then there was the time that he stepped down from behind the bench in order to perform a quickie wedding ceremony on behalf of a defendant he was sentencing to 18 months in prison. Or the time he gave the same man — without being asked, and without notifying prosecutors — a six-day furlough. “Just because I’m about to send someone to prison doesn’t mean I can’t show them a little humanity,” he said at the time. “It struck me as reasonable to give him some time to spend with his wife.”

Not all of Merrett’s headlines have been so lighthearted. In 2008, he released a first-degree murder defendant suspected of killing a snitch, erasing the $750,000 bail that had kept the man in jail for almost two years. His advice to the defendant: “Don’t let your celebrating get out of hand.” Two weeks later, the man pled guilty to manslaughter.

On another occasion, Merrett released a defendant, without bail, later charged with raping and robbing two women. And on a third occasion, an accused drug dealer he released without bail was later charged with shooting his 24-year-old stepson.

Of course, there is no way for a judge to know what a freed defendant might do, and absent a conviction, not everyone needs to be locked up. But Merrett has also found trouble for his irreverent style. In 2009, he drew headlines for his fierce criticism of a Pakistan-born defendant accused of preying on teen girls through the Internet. Responding to the man’s online assertion that U.S. women were stupid and promiscuous, Merrett called Irfan Nawaz a degenerate, hypocrite and bigot. “On behalf of my countrywomen, I join you in thanking God that you did not marry an American woman,” Merrett told him before sentencing him to 20 years in prison. The 1st District Court reversed Merrett’s ruling on appeal, saying it was unclear if he’d based it on the defendant’s national origin, and assigned the case to another judge. When the case was reheard, Circuit Judge David Gooding cut Nawaz’s sentence in half.

Some in the legal community believe it was the string of headlines from Merrett’s first couple of years on the bench that precipitated his being moved to the less-public family court in 2011. That may or may not be the case — when asked about it, Merrett noted that all except the most senior judges are transferred every two years. But Merrett’s history is almost certainly a reason he’s being challenged this election cycle. Incumbent judges are typically immune from electoral challenges, but personal injury attorney and Florida Coastal School of Law adjunct professor Suzanne Bass has violated the unspoken rule by filing to run against Merrett.

Asked why she decided to challenge him, Bass, who has twice sought a seat on the bench, wrote in an email that she “care[s] deeply about the integrity of the courts and our system of justice” and believes “elected officials, including judges, should be accountable to the voters.”

Judge Merrett conceded that it was unusual for someone to challenge a sitting judge, but says it won’t affect his plans to “win even-handed.”

Outside of chambers, Merrett is a recognizable member of the Jacksonville legal community. If his bald head and thick beard aren’t enough to set him apart, his usual getup — straw hat and saddle shoes — is. Judge Merrett stands out in other ways; he is more attuned to defendant’s rights than his lock-’em-up brethren. It is this posture that, some believe, has made him a vulnerable target in conservative Duval County.

Former law partner Tad Delegal acknowledges that Merrett has been in the crosshairs of some, but describes him as a “brilliant attorney.”

“He’s one of the smartest guys I know, [and] probably has one of the biggest hearts,” says Delegal (whose wife writes occasionally for Folio Weekly). “[He has] a nearly photographic memory [and] is unafraid to voice unpopular opinion … [although he] gets a lot of criticism for it.”

No attorneys were willing to go on record criticizing a sitting judge, but several spoke off the record. Some described him as “erratic” and “unpredictable.” Everyone in the legal community has heard “a Judge Merrett story” or has one of their own. But even some of his critics suggest media coverage may simply have made him a vulnerable electoral target.

Even before he was elected, Merrett was no stranger to controversy. In the mid-’90s, he took on one of the state’s most formidable and well-funded foes — the Church of Scientology — in a high-profile lawsuit. The dramatic case cost millions, and was marked by absurdity. Attorneys on both sides were chastised by the court, witnesses abruptly recanted their testimony, people reported being chased by private investigators, fistfights broke out.

In 1995, Lisa McPherson, a 36-year-old Scientologist, died during a 17-day stay at Clearwater’s Fort Harrison Hotel — Scientology’s “spiritual headquarters.” Bob Minton, a prominent church critic, claimed her death was the result of being held prisoner while in the throes of a psychotic break, and those claims initially prompted criminal charges. Charges were dropped in 2000 when the medical examiner inexplicably changed the cause of death a few months before trial, but Minton, as founder of the Lisa McPherson Trust Inc. (a business entity with a stated mission to “expose the deceptive and abusive practices of Scientology”) filed a multimillion-dollar wrongful death suit.

Minton and fellow anti-Scientology activists Stacy Brooks, Mark Bunker and Jeff Jacobsen began picketing the church. Scuffles ensued, injunctions were issued and arrests were made for alleged violations. In May 2000, Minton hired John Merrett to represent him, the trust and 12 others in the ensuing litigation. Merrett told Folio Weekly that during this time, he also served “in an advisory capacity” on the wrongful death suit.

The case didn’t go easily for anyone — including Merrett. First, in December 2001, the court presiding over the injunction suit issued a nearly $32,000 judgment against Merrett, Jacobsen and the trust. The court wrote that Merrett and Jacobsen acted in “bad faith and … [with] willful disregard for and an abundance of gross indifference to the court system” for failing to request a continuance and being “unable to proceed” at a hearing.

Asked about the judgment, Merrett initially struggled to recall it, but went on to say that “people associated with the trust were not treated well by the courts” and the “job of a judge is to simplify and expedite” litigation, not to “place absurd discovery demands” on parties. In a subsequent conversation about the large fine, he recalled, “one of the clients probably paid it.”

Problems continued for Merrett in 2002, when Minton and Brooks abruptly recanted their testimony and accused the trust’s attorneys — Merrett included — of serious discovery violations and potentially criminal conduct. Minton claimed he had previously perjured himself in the wrongful death suit. Following his testimony, Brooks submitted an affidavit corroborating his allegations, stating that she, too, had perjured herself and further claiming that “[p]rior to my deposition, he [Merrett] coached me how to falsely answer questions” and had “taken care of” some videotape evidence.

Minton’s reversal was disputed in 2009 by former high-ranking church officials, who claimed Minton only reversed his testimony because he was being blackmailed by the church. Former Pinellas-Pasco County Chief Judge Susan F. Schaeffer, who presided over the wrongful death suit, told Folio Weekly that she did not believe Minton’s recantation, even at the time.

But the strange turn of events required Merrett to appear as a witness, and he did, on April 23, 2002, in what Schaeffer called “a hearing to end all hearings.” Though the judge did not remember Merrett by name, she recalled that the attorney had held some videotapes in trust, tapes he “refused” to produce “until compelled” by the court. Judge Schaeffer said that the attorney frustrated her and that during his testimony, he was “surly, not typical of a lawyer appearing before a judge.”

On the stand, Merrett insisted that the videotapes Brooks claimed Merrett had caused “to be removed … in non-compliance with discovery requests” were not validly subject to subpoena or order of the court, but were the personal property of Mark Bunker, a TV journalist and Scientology critic who has produced videos on behalf of the Lisa McPherson Trust. Bunker, also one of Merrett’s clients, confirmed in a conversation with Folio Weekly that Merrett had held the tapes at his request because they contained “footage of Scientology-related pickets” representing “years of his work,” and Bunker was afraid he might never see them again if Merrett turned them over to the church. But when Judge Schaeffer warned those present that “if you don’t report this to the Bar, I will,” Merrett produced the tapes.

However, Merrett maintained that Brooks’ claim he’d suborned perjury wasn’t an assertion that he knowingly had, rather “that the information [he] had received with which to prepare her [for trial] was false.” Mark Bunker opined to Folio Weekly that Brooks was just trying to protect Minton, with whom she was romantically involved, from being charged with perjury, and that many felt she “went overboard” in her allegations against Merrett. To this day, Merrett says he considers Brooks “a friend.” (Both Bob Minton, who passed away in 2010, and Stacy Brooks subsequently disappeared from public view.)

Asked whatever happened to the judges’ threat of sanctions, Merrett said that he was “never” called upon by The Florida Bar to defend his conduct. Judge Schaeffer says that by the time Merrett finished testifying, she was satisfied there was no cause to report him to the Bar. The Florida Bar maintains public record of disciplinary actions for 10 years. There is no record of any disciplinary action against Judge John Merrett.

Unseating an incumbent is an unusual event in any election cycle. Judges’ races are particularly subdued, because of rules governing the behavior of judicial candidates. But the money contest in the Circuit Court Judge Group 34 race is heating up. Suzanne Bass has a war chest of $212,650, though $205,000 of that is loans or donations from her and her family. Merrett has raised just $77,350, but again, most — $75,000 — is money he’s lent to his own campaign.

It is likely that the legal community will steer clear of this battle for the bench, if only because no one wants to get on the wrong side of a judge. Those who would support Bass may resist getting involved merely because tradition forbids such challenges. And still others may feel her candidacy is simply an effort by Jacksonville’s old guard to unseat a judge who fights the status quo. But there’s no question that Merrett’s record — good, bad and ugly — will be showcased by both sides in the fight for his seat.

Claire Goforth

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