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Judge fires back on ‘Protection Court’ allegations

“Even litigants who did not consent to appear in ‘Protection Court’ were still filmed.”

A Miami-Dade County judge is accusing an investigative panel of filing disciplinary charges to discourage her and other judges from allowing court proceedings to be filmed for use in commercial productions.

The controversy surrounding Judge Carroll Kelly, who presides over the county’s domestic-violence division, stems from her involvement in a television show called “Protection Court.”

An investigative panel of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission on May 6 filed formal charges against Kelly, alleging her participation in the show was improper.

But in a response filed with the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday, Kelly’s lawyers said the charges violated an agreement between the judge and the JQC in which the panel agreed not to pursue sanctions if she withdrew from the show.

Kelly stopped participating in “Protection Court” in September 2019, after reaching a settlement with the commission, which investigates potential wrongdoing by judges, according to court documents.

“In good faith, Judge Kelly reasonably and substantially relied upon the JQC’s promise to her detriment by stopping her participation in the Protection Court program, even though it has always been her firm belief her participation in the program was proper, of significant value to the community and not in violation of any canon,” Kelly’s lawyers, David Rothman and Jeanne Melendez, wrote in a brief Tuesday.

The commission “acted arbitrarily, capriciously and unreasonably in its dealings with Judge Kelly during the investigative proceedings,” the judge’s lawyers wrote.

The “Protection Court” website says the show “opens the doors to the domestic violence courtroom of Miami’s Lawson E. Thomas Courthouse to capture real-life court as it happens in one of the country’s busiest working protection order courts.” The website also says that all the participants have consented to be on the syndicated program and that Kelly is not paid to appear.

Kelly’s lawyers accused the panel of filing formal charges against Kelly to deter her and other judges from allowing the filming of hearings or trials for use in commercial productions.

The investigative panel “was seeking to stop the filming and broadcast of a program based on court proceedings because it disapproved of the concept, the focus and/or the format of the program, not because Judge Kelly violated any (judicial) canon,” they argued.

Kelly sought and received an opinion from the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee prior to participating in the show, according to court documents. Whether a judge may permit court cases to be filmed and televised weekly “is a matter of judicial administration, rather than judicial ethics,” the committee found.

Kelly also relied on opinions from Texas, New York and Rhode Island; an attorney for the 11th Judicial Circuit; and a 1979 Florida Supreme Court opinion that opened the door for cameras in the courtroom, her lawyers wrote.

“Judge Kelly’s only motivation for being involved in this program was to educate and show people how domestic violence court works and how the court can help families involved in violence,” they added.

According to the May 6 notice of charges, Kelly’s participation in the television show “lent the prestige of your judicial office to advance the private interests of yourself or others.”

Kelly gave “minimal notice” to litigants scheduled to have cases before her that the show’s producer would ask them for consent to appear on “Protection Court,” lawyers representing the investigative panel wrote in the charges.

Litigants were presented with an “appearance release” shortly before entering the courtroom for their hearings, the panel alleged.

“Even litigants who did not consent to appear in ‘Protection Court’ were still filmed,” the notice of formal charges said.

The release required litigants to waive and release “any and all manner of liabilities, claims and demands of any kind.”

The investigative panel also accused the judge of making misleading statements when she obtained consent from the chief judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit to participate in the filming of “Protection Court.” Kelly denied the allegation in the documents filed Tuesday.

Asking the Florida Supreme Court, which has the authority to sanction judges, to drop the charges, Kelly’s lawyers also denied that she lent the prestige of her judicial office to advance the private interests of herself or others.

The judge acknowledged that litigants were provided with an appearance release, but she said the release was part of a contract between the production company and the 11th Judicial Circuit.

Kelly “had no role in the creation, dissemination or collection of the releases,” her lawyers wrote.

The judge also denied that litigants were given “minimal notice” before they were asked to sign the release. Signs in English and Spanish were posted inside and outside of the courtroom, informing that cases were being filmed for use in a TV program and that people have the right to say they do not want to be on television, her lawyers argued.

And two victim advocates were “stationed outside the courtroom” to assist anyone who did not want to participate in the show, they added.

The investigative panel accused Kelly of having “misrepresented your authority to halt the production of ‘Protection Court’” when she appeared before the panel in August 2019.

But Kelly’s lawyers said the panel took the judge’s comments out of context.

“Her ability to stop the production of the program and prevent it from airing on television was never even asked or mentioned during the hearing,” they wrote.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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