Florida Sun-Sentinel
November 12, 2000

Liberal Judge Will Rule on Stopping Recount

By John Holland

MIAMI, FLA. -- A staunchly liberal judge who worked tirelessly for abused children and helped write state public ethics laws will decide whether to stop a recount that could be critical in determining the next president of the United States.

U.S. District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks, appointed to the bench four years ago by President Clinton, is a longtime Democrat who began his career in the early 1970s under then-Gov. Reubin Askew.

Respected for his intellect and compassion, Middlebrooks, 53, led the push for Florida’s Sunshine Laws, designed to make government more accountable and accessible to the public.

Monday morning, in a Miami federal court, the public spotlight will be squarely on Middlebrooks, who is a resident of Palm Beach County. Gov. George W. Bush and a cadre of lawyers have asked Middlebrooks to block manual recounts in four Florida counties, which could effectively end Al Gore’s attempts to win Florida and, ultimately, the White House without mounting a legal challenge of his own.

Middlebrooks was selected on a random draw of federal judges after Bush, the Republican candidate for president, filed an emergency motion early Saturday morning.

“He’s a very impressive fellow and an excellent judge, but he’s the worst possible judge the Bush campaign could have drawn for this case,” said Nova University Professor Bob Jarvis, who specializes in state constitutional law. “He’s clearly an independent guy who cuts his own path, and he isn’t afraid to make difficult decisions.”

Middlebrooks’ first controversial battle came more than 20 years ago when he helped free famed Death Row inmates Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee. The men were charged with killing two gas station attendants in Port St. Joe on Aug. 6, 1963, and sentenced to death just 22 days later.

Askew appointed Middlebrooks to investigate their case, and in 1975 pardoned the pair based on the young lawyer’s recommendation. The men subsequently were declared innocent and awarded a $1 million settlement by the state.

The son-in-law of former Democratic U.S. Rep. Harry Johnston, Middlebrooks is the past head of the Palm Beach Children’s Services Council and the Criminal Justice Commission. He also is the former president of Florida Legal Services, which provides legal services to the poor, and once headed an organization that worked on behalf of Death Row inmates.

In 1977 he joined the law firm of Steele Hector Davis and eventually became a partner. At the firm he helped write many state ethics laws for the Florida Bar and gained a reputation for his pro bono work on behalf of children, minorities and the poor.

As a federal judge based in Miami, Middlebrooks also has drawn attention for bold decisions in several high-profile cases.

Last year, the judge levied a $9 million fine against Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. for pumping oily wastes into the sea and then lying to investigators. And, he threw out a theft and bribery case against three Port of Miami executives because, while he found them to be corrupt, he said prosecutors never proved the Port’s money belonged to the public.

He’s also been on the losing side in a previous ballot controversy more than a decade ago. Representing a group of Hispanic voters, Middlebrooks lobbied unsuccessfully to block an amendment to the state constitution that made English the official language of Florida.

Middlebrooks argued that the drive to put the amendment on the state ballot was illegal because petitions were circulated only in English. A federal judge ruled against him, the amendment passed overwhelmingly, and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld the vote.

That Atlanta court will hear any appeals the Bush campaign may make after Middlebrooks rules on their request for an injunction.

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