- Daphne Duret Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Long before former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Circuit Judge Meenu Sasser to the Palm Beach County bench in 2009, and before she came to Florida fresh out of law school with $100 to her name, she was a first grade ESOL student in the Washington, D.C. area, where her parents had emigrated from India.
This memory of her public school class was one of the first things that came to Sasser’s mind when she learned earlier this month that she received the top number of high marks for the third time in a row among her peers in a recently released rating of the county’s judges by the attorneys who practice before them.
At least three quarters of the 188 attorneys who evaluated Sasser gave her excellent ratings in each of the nine evaluation areas included in the poll, which the Palm Beach County Bar Association conducts every two years. Most of the other attorneys who judged Sasser rated her as satisfactory.
While Sasser had the highest number of positive responses numerically, fellow civil circuit Judge Joseph Marx had the highest percentage of positive ratings across the board, a distinction he’s previously held as well while presiding over civil and criminal cases alike.
Under the poll’s rules, each lawyer rates a judge as excellent, satisfactory or needs improvement. County court judges and magistrates also were rated.
Sasser, who has already broken barriers as the first Asian-American circuit judge in the state of Florida, said she’s humbled to have received the positive feedback and hopes that her story serves as an example to other women, minorities and those just starting out in the U.S.
“I never expected a girl who started off in ESOL classes to have what I have now. It’s beyond my wildest expectations,” Sasser said. “If I can do it, anyone can. It takes hard work, dedication, and a little help. I want the next generation to know that they can do this, too.”
Sasser, 47, attributes her record with local attorneys to the priority she gives to treating all litigants in her circuit civil division with kindness.
Marx and Sasser also top the list in ratings on ability to manage a case load, along with civil circuit judges Cheryl Caracuzzo and Richard Oftedal, and felony circuit judges John Katrenakes, Glenn Kelley and Charles Burton.
For Marx, keeping that kind of control over his cases and courtroom over the years requires a tough balance between being patient and considerate of attorneys and litigants and setting boundaries to ensure no one in his courtroom takes advantage of that kindness. All but 3 of the 118 people who evaluated Marx gave him good ratings for impartiality, a testament to his seemingly counter-intuitive approach of refusing at times to hold back his feelings.
Several years ago, when sentencing pill mill king Jeff George, Marx exceeded even prosecutors’ sentence recommendation of 15 years in prison, and wasn’t shy about telling George that he would’ve given him even more than 20 years in prison had prosecutors not agreed to cap his sentence at that punishment in exchange for his cooperation.
In the sentencing of Paul Michael Merhige, who killed several members of his family in a Thanksgiving Day 2007 shooting, Marx sternly rebuked a grieving father, immediately tempered the admonishment by sharing personal lessons on overcoming grief from the murder of his first wife more than two decades ago, and then sentenced Merhige to life in prison — all in a single speech that left many courtroom observers in tears.
Honesty from the bench, Marx said, is an important part of making the system work.
“I’m surprised, I’ve had a lot of defendants tell me thank you, and I was sending them to prison,” Marx said. “I think making people feel that they’re heard is the best thing you can do.”
While Marx, Sasser and others topped the recent poll, other judges received more negative appraisals in the attorney’s reviews.Circuit Judge Jaimie Goodman — who presides over family court and civil cases at the south county courthouse in Delray Beach — received among the lowest marks of all the judges evaluated.
Of the 175 attorneys who evaluated him, the vast majority — 143 — said his judicial demeanor and attitude toward attorneys in his courtroom needed improvement. The majority of his evaluators also found him lacking in the part of the evaluation that assessed the ability of judges to make practical decisions and use common sense.
Goodman did not return calls to his office seeking comment on the ratings by attorneys who have appeared before him.
In one of several changes in judicial assignments that Chief Circuit Judge Krista Marx made recently, Goodman in January will move to West Palm Beach to oversee a civil court division at the main courthouse.
Burton, who will replace him in Delray Beach, was evaluated by less than half the number of attorneys who evaluated Goodman in the recent poll. But Burton receive a high percentage of top marks in the same areas where Goodman received poor ratings and also received among the highest marks of all the judges across each of the nine areas included in the poll.
Sasser will take on the challenge of picking up Burton’s criminal division.
The evaluation categories for the judges, hearing officers and magistrates rated in the pool are: knowledge and application of law, impartiality, diligence and preparedness, judicial demeanor, control of the courtroom,case management efficiency, punctuality and timeliness in issuing decisions common sense and enforcement of Standards of Professionalism.
“The judicial evaluation continues to show that Palm Beach County has a respected judiciary that serves the public extremely well,” said Rosalyn Sia Baker-Barnes, president of the county Bar Association. Barnes adds, “The evaluation is conducted in order to advance the Bar’s mission of educating the public. The evaluation is intended to provide an assessment of our judicial officers that is fair, balanced and informative.”
Because the poll only evaluates local judges with at least one year of experience, the recently-released results did not include evaluations of recently appointed judges or newly elected judges from the 2016 election season. That includes embattled County Judge Dana Santino, who is fighting to keep her job in the face of a recommendation to Florida’s Supreme Court that she be removed from the bench because of campaign violations.
The Bar poll has received mixed reviews and been has revamped over the years. One complaint is that judges are not evaluated by the same number of attorneys. And although lawyers who rate the judges are supposed to have had at least one trial or three hearings in front of each judge they evaluated over the past two years, not all lawyers follow those rules.
Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath for example, was rated by 81 attorneys even though he only returned to the courtroom this summer after several years of serving in an almost exclusively administrative capacity as the circuit’s chief judge.
Colbath acknowledged that there was no way all of his evaluators could have met the requirements to evaluate him in the short time he’s been back on the bench. Still, he points to the work that bar association members have done over the years to refine the polling, including the elimination of a numerical rank system, as evidence that it serves the purpose of giving him and his colleagues a measure of necessary feedback.
“It is imperfect,” Colbath said. “But it really is still a valuable tool.”
As chief judge, Colbath said he never talked to any of his colleagues in his official capacity about their individual poll results. The nature of the work judges do naturally brings fans and detractors, Colbath said, but he added that judges are wise to look for general trends in the results and consider avenues of improvement.
Even with her high ratings, Sasser also has encountered accusations of hostility, including one that led an appellate court to remove her from a tobacco case two years ago, the same year nearly 90 percent of attorneys who responded to the last poll gave her excellent ratings in judicial demeanor.
Sasser and Colbath were among four Palm Beach County circuit judges who recently applied for five federal court vacancies. None of the county’s applicants, however, were selected for the short list of 10 nominees forward to Florida’s two U.S. senators.
Sasser says she hopes the consistent positive feedback she has received will encourage other women and minorities who aspire to become judges.
“It’s not about me, it’s about helping the system and I want to open doors for other people,” she said. “And that’s a passion for me, to help other women, to help other minorities succeed on the bench, because it has to be reflective of our society.”