Florida Drug Court Judge’s Relapse Results in Removal from Bench
In an ironic twist, a Florida drug court judge was removed from the bench after enrolling in a substance abuse treatment program herself.
In December 2013, Broward County Judge Gisele Pollack, 57, took a two-week leave to participate in a substance abuse program after admitting to consuming alcohol before work. The inebriated judge had threatened to fire her staff for preventing her from entering the courtroom; another judge was forced to intervene and send her home.
Only a few months after Pollack completed the treatment program, a prosecutor informed Administrative Judge Sharon Zeller that Pollack’s speech was slurred during a court proceeding. Pollack was removed from the bench on March 19, 2014; she immediately took personal leave and again checked herself into an outpatient rehab center.
According to Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, also a recovering addict, the first time someone enters a substance abuse program the duration is 28 days.
“But when you relapse, it is usually longer. Because you have two different relapses and you’re dealing with a professional person – a person with a lot of power – the long term treatment can be six months,” he said. “She’s going to be in a long term treatment, and they’re going to try to unravel whatever psychological demons she has.”
Pollack never hid the fact that she had an addiction problem. During her 2004 campaign, she admitted to being a recovered alcoholic who could approach drug court with an insight that other judges lacked. She had been sober for two decades and blamed her recent relapse on “personal tragedies.” Her mother passed away shortly before the December 2013 incident and she had been caring for her bedridden son for several years.
While still receiving treatment, Pollack returned to work but was later suspended without pay after she caused an accident while driving under the influence in May 2014.
Regardless, Pollack continued to be well-respected among her peers. As a proponent of alternative sentencing, she allowed non-violent drug offenders to complete substance abuse treatment, testing and supervision in exchange for dismissing the charges against them.
“Anybody who’s watched what she’s done knows that she’s single-handedly saved the lives of hundreds of people,” said Finkelstein. Still, he said it “becomes problematic” when deciding whether she can sit in judgment of others after her own relapses.
“There’s no rule that says in this instance you do this or that,” stated Miles McGrane, a former chairman of Florida’s Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC). “The JQC isn’t out there to get judges, to be punitive. The JQC is there, number one, to protect the public but also recognizing that judges are constitutional officers with rights. It’s a real balancing act.”
Pollack resigned from the Broward County court in early January 2015 after the JQC announced it was recommending her removal from office. The formal charges against her included at least six incidents of professional misconduct while she was intoxicated at work.
Saying the loss of Pollack on the drug court was a real loss for the community, Finkelstein offered to let her return to her former job – with the Broward Public Defender’s Office. Pollack agreed to join the team representing indigent clients who cannot afford to pay for counsel between their first appearance and arraignment.
“She’s somebody with a wealth of experience who cares deeply about people and can serve my clients and my office very well. For me it’s an opportunity to pay it back and pay it forward. But for someone throwing me a life preserver 27 years ago, I never would have been able to rebuild my life,” said Finkelstein.
Two other Broward County judges, Lynn Rosenthal and Cynthia Imperato, were also arrested for driving under the influence in 2013 and 2014. Rosenthal resigned in October 2015 and Imperato stepped down in February 2016 rather than face disciplinary action.
Sources: Daily Business Review, www.browardpalmbeach.com, www.sun-sentinel.com