Coleen Forbes says she got the shock of her life when her son, Stacey, 19, who had left the house for jury duty, telephoned to say he had been sentenced to four months in jail.
Broward County Circuit Judge Eileen M. O'Connor found Stacey Forbes in contempt of court in March for failing to disclose his arrest history in questions posed to prospective jurors. It is not often that a potential juror winds up in jail, and such a lengthy sentence is almost unheard-of.
"I was speechless when my child called me," Forbes said. "I felt so helpless. He's in court, he's scared, he doesn't know what's going on. I can't describe the helpless feeling that you have."
Now O'Connor is the subject of an ethics probe into allegations that she did not disclose on her application to become a judge that she had been the subject of two discrimination complaints while she was supervisor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Fort Lauderdale.
"It's the principle of the thing. Even Judge O'Connor is not above the law," said Forbes, who is black.
The state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which handles ethics matters involving Florida judges, is reviewing a complaint on behalf of Forbes by the Fort Lauderdale branch of the NAACP, according to several attorneys familiar with the case. Facts surrounding the probe would become public record only if charges are filed against O'Connor.
O'Connor's lawyer, Michael Tein, said the allegations about discrimination complaints -- one based on religion filed by a Jewish prosecutor, the other on race filed by a black prosecutor -- are groundless and never rose to the level of formal complaints. He has requested personnel files from the Justice Department to prove that O'Connor did not make false statements on her judicial application.
Stacey Forbes served almost a month of his contempt sentence before O'Connor agreed to his release April 20 to allow time for an appeal. His lawyer, Bill Gelin, has asked a state appeals court to reverse O'Connor's decision and has called repeatedly for her removal from the bench.
"I don't see how she can sit up there. It's about race and the criminal justice system," Gelin said. "Unfortunately, a large number of criminal defendants are minorities."
Legal experts say it is unusual for a judge to impose such a harsh contempt sentence.
"The four-month sentence, in my opinion, is clearly excessive," said Geoffrey C. Hazard Jr., law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "This judge seems to have a self-serving, rigid interpretation of legal requirements."
The controversy has struck a nerve among blacks in Broward County, and leaders question whether O'Connor can be fair to minorities.
"Judge O'Connor is applying a standard different from the one she has applied to herself," said Marsha Ellison, president of the area branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
O'Connor, 56, was appointed to the bench in 2003 by Gov. Jeb Bush (R), after a 24-year career as a federal prosecutor handling cases including public corruption, health care fraud, weapons, arson, and money laundering. From 1999 to 2002, she ran the Broward County branch of the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Florida.
On her judicial application, she answered "no" when asked whether current or former "co-workers, subordinates, supervisors, customers or clients ever filed a formal complaint or accusation of misconduct against you."
Former colleagues and several prominent South Florida defense lawyers who jousted with O'Connor in court for years say they have never seen evidence of religious or ethnic bias.
"That's so far afield from her basic makeup, it's virtually impossible for me to believe," said J. David Bogenschutz, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who said he has known O'Connor for 20 years.
"I don't think there's a discriminatory bone in her body," said Miami attorney Alvin Entin, who said he has known her for 25 years. "She is a person whose word you can trust. She's one of the most fundamentally decent people I know."
O'Connor's defenders say that she must have had a good reason for imposing such a stiff sentence. But Forbes's lawyer and family say he simply misunderstood, thinking he was being asked if he had any convictions -- he does not -- rather than simply arrests. His record involves car break-ins and marijuana possession, according to police.
Stacey Forbes could return to jail to serve the remaining three months of his sentence if his appeal is unsuccessful. His mother said the cloud hanging over her son makes it difficult for him to get a job or enroll in school.
"He's just sitting and waiting and hoping that everything will turn out okay," she said.