No one seems to dispute that the felony case backlog in Broward has been steadily reduced since Judge Contini was assigned to the division. This is primarily due to his aggressive work ethic where cases are heard rather than delayed, orders and rulings are made promptly, and both prosecutors and defense attorneys are expected to fulfill their responsibilities to their respective clients. However this formula does not appear to sit well with some who prefer the so-called “good ol’ days” of the Broward Judiciary.
Putting into practice the axiom that justice delayed is justice denied, Judge Contini has regularly engaged the State and Defense Attorneys in his court to find ways to move cases in a way that protects both the public and the defendants. Significant in these discussions is the court’s insistence that both parties explicitly review and make a part of the court record their respective positions on sentencing criteria for each and every defendant preserving both the State’s and the defense’s complete record for potential appeal.
While at mandatory Judicial College where the subject of sentencing was being discussed, and as a continuation to ongoing side-bar discussions, Judge Contini sent an email to an Assistant Public Defender presenting a possible template for “perfecting motions for downward departure sentencing, if appropriate” that was provided by a fellow Judge.
Though the email discussed no specific cases on the circuit’s docket, it did offer a possible model for the Court to hear sentencing recommendations and make decisions on the merits of each case. Florida Statute 921.0026(2) offers the Court, State and defense attorneys reasons for departure from the guidelines. Judge Contini asserted to both sides in open court and during several side bars that according to case law and statutory language the list of reasons offered to go below the guidelines is not necessarily limited to the list found in Florida Statute 921.0026(2). Contini has asked the lawyers that come before him to use their legal minds to provide the Court with more imaginative reasons to break up the traffic jam that has choked his division.
“He discerns the difference between violent and non violent offenders.” According to lawyer Ramona Tolley who recently appeared before Judge Contini. She continued, “He prefers to make use of the various programs available in Broward County when a case merits a more compassionate or appropriate sentence.” Records reviewed by Daily Broward staff indicate that Contini has granted the State’s objections to guideline downward departures on approximately 50% of the motions heard so far. The results of our reviews contradict any suggestion of a lack of impartiality by Judge Contini.
In a surprising decision, the Broward County’s State Attorney’s office, because they were not copied on the email, has moved to disqualify Judge Contini from all criminal cases, requesting that he recuse himself from all criminal cases in his division. Contini refused to be strong-armed into agreeing to these disqualification requests. In the opinion of one legal expert, “The State Attorney’s office is being a little disingenuous; how would Judge Contini know which state attorney to send it to when no case was referenced? I suppose he could post it and send it to every state attorney in Broward but that seems a little ridiculous. It’s silly!”A separate issue being discussed in the Court house by various defense attorneys is why other judges who appeared to show partiality to the State (where the 4th DCA ruled that this partiality existed) have avoided motions for disqualification or writs of prohibition, which the Attorney General has demanded in Contini’s matter.
Since he took the bench in January, 2015, the record of case dispositions shows a remarkable even handedness in Judge Contini’s sentencing. Furthermore in many cases, Judge Contini has granted the State and defense attorney’s request for alternative sentencing generally giving nonviolent defendants a chance for rehabilitation.
Public Defender Howard Finkelstein stated “We’ve had some real problems with the Broward judiciary, this is not even a ripple in the ocean of problems that we’ve had, yet this is the first time we hear from the State Attorney’s Office. This is much ado about nothing! A tempest in a teapot!”