Judge Steps Down After Backlash Over Treatment of Sick Inmate

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) – A South Florida judge stepped down from the bench Monday, facing backlash for scolding an infirm inmate and ignoring her plea for medical treatment during a bond hearing a few days before the inmate’s death.

After a video surfaced showing the conduct towards now-deceased Sandra Twiggs, Broward County Judge Merrilee Ehrlich on Monday formally notified the court that she was resigning, effective at 5 pm.

Coughing, wheezing and requesting medical treatment, Twiggs, 59, came before the judge on April 15 for a bond hearing. She was facing a misdemeanor battery charge stemming from a domestic dispute with her daughter.

Twiggs told the court that she was suffering from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“Can someone there give her water as a kindness?” Judge Ehrlich asked, interacting via video feed with Twiggs, who was sitting in a wheelchair at the North Broward Jail.

“Ma’am, do you need water?” the judge asked.

“Yes, and a breathing treatment,” Twiggs said.

“I am not here to talk to you about your breathing treatment,” Judge Ehrlich said, scolding the woman.

Ehrlich then asked a public defender to instruct Twiggs on “propriety in court.”

Clearly incensed during the hearing, Judge Ehrlich proclaimed that she was being interrupted by Twiggs. She also repeatedly yelled at Twiggs for trying to give longer-than one-word responses to her questions.

“Excuse me, don’t say anything beyond what I’m asking you,” the judge yells at one point.

Twiggs ultimately received bond, and was released. She died three days after the hearing, from respiratory disease complications, according to her family. Her sister Anna Twiggs was in tears when she saw the bond hearing video, WPLG reported.

Another defendant, who appeared before Judge Ehrlich in April 15 bond court immediately after Twiggs, was similarly scolded, according to the public defender’s office.

“The Judge was informed that [the defendant] had no income and was a stay-at-home mother to her nine-month-old child. In making a bond determination, Judge Ehrlich stated that the father of [the] infant was at home to care for the child. When [the] panicked and crying [defendant] tried to correct this mistake, the Judge angrily silenced her,” public defender Howard Finkelstein said in an April 20 letter to the chief judge.

Though Ehrlich was scheduled to retire this summer, the public defender called for her to be dismissed early, saying her behavior was “aggressive and tyrannical” and  “an embarrassment to Broward County.”

Ehrlich’s office at the court has not responded to a request for comment.

In a statement sent to Courthouse News via the 17th Judicial Circuit press office, Chief Judge Jack Tuter said he was “saddened and disappointed in the way Judge Ehrlich behaved.”

“Her behavior cannot be condoned. This is in no way a reflection of the many hard working judges in the 17th circuit. I will be speaking with all our judges next week to reemphasize the public trust invested in the work we do. All our citizens, no matter what might brings them to the courthouse, deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. As Chief Judge I intend to do by best to see this does not happen again.”

Tuter said he’d reach out to Twiggs’ family to apologize for the way Ehrlich treated her. He said that while he did not have authority to remove her from her judicial office, Ehrlich would be told to no longer report to court in light of the incident with Twiggs.

After Tuter made those statements, the court received Ehrlich’s formal resignation letter Monday.

The letter reads: “It has been a great honor, privilege and pleasure to serve in the Unified Family Division of the 17th Judicial Circuit, for the past ten (10) years,” Ehrlich said. “I am sending you this email to formally notify you that I am rescheduling my 6/30/18 retirement to become effective immediately, at 5pm today.”

According to her profile, Ehrlich worked in the legal field for nearly thirty years, as an assistant state attorney and criminal defense attorney before becoming a circuit court judge in 2009.

Stating that “life is quite a roller coaster,” her online profile mentions past roles as a drug counselor, family court mediator and foster parent.

“I believe a judge should be wise and sensible; learned in the law and in life; honorable and humble; a lover of the truth, justice, and people; and most of all, courageous,” the profile says. “God’s willing, I hope and pray to follow these principles throughout my life.”

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