Chief Judge Says She Doesn’t Have Authority to Remove Judge Who Jailed No-Show Juror

October 14, 2019by Hannah Winston
Chief Circuit Judge Krista Marx. (Lannis Waters/Palm Beach Post/TNS)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Chief Judge Krista Marx said she wanted to make it clear to the residents of the county the limits of her authority when it comes to the question of intervening in the case that brought national attention to Palm Beach County.

After continued national outcry over Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes’ sentencing of DeAndre Somerville, a 21-year-old West Palm Beach resident with no criminal history, to 10 days in jail for skipping jury duty, Marx released a statement Saturday morning. She said while she was prohibited from making a statement about any judge’s ruling because of the Judicial Code of Conduct, she wanted to make it clear what she was allowed to do in her capacity.

As chief judge, a position she’s been elected to twice by fellow judges since 2017, she is “charged with the administrative supervision over all judges and court personnel within” the 15th Judicial Circuit. But, she wrote, she does “not have the authority to review the legality of the rulings made by each individual judge.” She said that’s the job of the appellate court.

“It is also important to understand that my Chief Judge authority does not extend to investigating or disciplining my fellow judicial officers for allegations of judicial misconduct,” she wrote.

While some have asked for Kastrenakes to be removed from the bench for his actions, others have asked for other kinds of discipline.

During a news conference Friday morning in front of the downtown Palm Beach County courthouse, Somerville’s attorney, Edwin Ferguson, asked that individuals upset by the sentence join him in demanding Marx reassign Kastrenakes.

“Presently, (Kastrenakes) has shown he is unfit to serve or preside over jury trials here in Palm Beach County,” Ferguson said. “Justice and equity require that Judge Kastrenakes be transferred out of any trial division.”

Kastrenakes has been a trial judge since he was appointed in 2009.

The 10-day jail sentence caused a national outcry, bringing into question how a man with no criminal record can be sentenced to jail for what some have called a minor offense.

On Aug. 21, Somerville did not appear in court to serve on a jury for which he was selected in a civil trial. Though court documents show numerous attempts were made to contact Somerville, court personnel were unable to reach him. When Somerville appeared in court on Sept. 20 on contempt of court charges, a misdemeanor, he explained he overslept the morning he was supposed to go to jury duty and instead rushed into work and never called the court to let them know he would not make it. He told the judge he did not understand the seriousness of the situation.

After serving 10 days in jail and being placed on a year of probation, Somerville returned to apologize to Kastrenakes and have his family speak on his behalf. Kastrenakes reduced his sentence to three months in jail and said he would remove the conviction from his record if he completed probation successfully. After continued scrutiny from the public, and what he called “reflection over the weekend,” Kastrenakes vacated the contempt finding and rescinded the sentence in an order filed Monday.

On Wednesday, state Sen. Bobby Powell Jr., D-Riviera Beach, announced he filed a complaint against Kastrenakes with the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, an independent state agency that investigates “allegations of judicial misconduct.” The commission is made up of judges from across the state at all levels, lawyers and laypeople.

In the complaint, which he publicly released, Powell said Kastrenakes “acted in an unprecedented manner to unfairly punish one individual for a minor transgression.”

In her statement released Saturday, Marx wrote that because she was also elected by judges across the state to serve as the Chair of the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, she would recuse herself from any investigation into any judge from the 15th Judicial Circuit.

“It would be inappropriate for me, in my chief judge capacity, to use my chief judge administrative authority as a disciplinary tool to respond to a complaint filed with the (commission) against a judge of the circuit,” she wrote.

Marx, who started as a prosecutor in 1985 and began serving as a judge in 1998, has had her own contempt case involving a juror.

In 2016, juror Philip Elliott looked up two words in a dictionary on his cellphone during deliberations in the first-degree murder trial of Victor Salastier Diaz, one of several men charged in the Three Amigos convenience store robbery turned homicide. Jurors are explicitly told throughout trials they are not allowed to do any kind of outside research on the case before them.

Elliott later messaged another juror after the trial that he knew two of the judges personally and then told the other juror to lie to the judge.

Because of those actions, Marx granted Diaz a new trial.

Elliott was convicted of criminal contempt and sentenced to eight days by Marx, who said his actions “maligned the dignity of this court.”

“You showed a complete and total disregard for the judicial system,” she told Elliott before he was taken to jail.


©2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

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