Fla. Judge Mocked Over Anna Nicole Case
Friday, February 23, 2007; 10:35 PM
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- From the state that brought you the hanging chad, now comes the crying judge. Some members of the bar and other court-watchers are cringing over the way Judge Larry Seidlin wept _ no, sobbed _ on live, national TV as he announced a ruling Thursday in the dispute over where Anna Nicole Smith should be buried.
Some are accusing the brash former New York cab driver of showboating for the cameras, or worse, auditioning for his own courtroom TV show, with his one-liners, his personal asides, and his smart-alecky Bronx delivery during the six-day hearing.
They say that he let the hearing drag on way too long, that he made inappropriate jokes for a dispute over a body, that he acted as if it were all about him.
"He's like Judge Judy's wacky little brother," legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin quipped on CNN.
The New York Post called him a "Weepy Wacko," while the Daily News asked, "How Low Can This Judge Go?" and referred to him as "Blubbering Seidlin." One of the Miami's most celebrated defense attorneys, Roy Black, said of the circus-like scene in Seidlin's courtroom: "I sort of think it gives circuses a bad name."
Black said he was torn between being entertained as a spectator and being horrified as a legal professional.
"I thought he was one of the most entertaining things I had ever seen. He could be a TV judge. He could be a stand-up comic. However, I think he makes a horrible judge," Black said. "He doesn't follow any of the rules or procedures."
In court, the 56-year-old Seidlin talked about his wife and divulged the minutiae of his days, mentioning his morning swim and the tuna sandwich he was having when assigned the case. He called Dr. Joshua Perper, the medical examiner, "Dr. Pepper." Lawyers became known by their home states of "Texas" or "California." The hearing often became a free-for-all, with the various parties talking at the same time.
On the last day of the hearing, Seidlin cut witnesses off altogether. From the bench, he freely aired his thoughts, including "I feel for you, Mama" to Smith's mother. And just when everyone was ready for testimony to spill into one final day, he issued his ruling.
In the end, though, Black said he agreed with Seidlin's tearful ruling that custody of Smith's body go to the court-appointed lawyer representing her 5-month-old baby, Dannielynn, and he said he thought the judge's emotions were genuine.
"I believe that he sincerely tried to do the right thing," he said. "But while the end result is correct, it made a mockery of the system of justice."
The baby's lawyer ultimately decided to have Smith buried in the Bahamas, which was what Seidlin had fervently wished for from the bench. That decision represented a defeat for Smith's mother, Virgie Arthur, who wanted to bury the starlet in her native Texas.
One of Arthur's attorneys, John O'Quinn, said of the judge: "The entire nation was watching him and so he wanted to do the most bizarre thing he could."
John Thompson, a Coral Gables lawyer, agreed that Seidlin made a mockery of the judicial process.
"If this is how a Circuit Court judge is supposed to act," he said, "then the Florida Supreme Court should issue an order directing that henceforth sitting judges can wear not just robes but rather opt for the clownish outfit of a carnival barker."
Seidlin declined to comment Friday, saying it wouldn't be appropriate. His only hope might be that the whole thing will eventually go away.
"You're all done with me," he said as he prepared to make his ruling Thursday. "I'm not going to talk about this case ever again."
At one point earlier this week, Seidlin rejected some of the characterizations of his courtroom: "There's no circus here, my friend."
Seidlin does have his admirers, too, including the attorneys for Larry Birkhead, one of at least two men who claim to be the father of Smith's baby.
"Sometimes lightening up a little helps everyone relax," said one, Susan Brown.
Eve Preminger, a former New York judge, said Seidlin could have curtailed his comments and held back his feelings, but he shouldn't be criticized so intensely for it.
"I just don't think it's the worst sin a judge could commit," she said. "I'd rather have an overemotional judge who cares than a mean judge who doesn't. We judges are so concerned with our dignity that sometimes we lose sight of the human issues."
Anthony Titone, an attorney who has known Seidlin for 35 years and whose wedding was officiated by the judge, acknowledged that Seidlin "could have chosen his words more carefully."
"But that's not Larry," he said.