For years, Broward County Judge Gisele Pollack has been the one who offers a second chance. This week, in papers filed with the Florida Supreme Court, she's asking for one.
Pollack, 56, is fighting to keep the job she was first elected to in 2004. But first she must convince the state's Judicial Qualifications Commission that her recent misadventures with alcohol are an exception to an otherwise distinguished career.
The JQC suspended her without pay from her $138,000-a-year job in May, citing a litany of alcohol-fueled offenses: She showed up for work drunk last Dec. 17 and March 19; broke a promise to stay away from alcohol; left a voluntary substance abuse program in Gainesville; and got into a car wreck while driving drunk in Plantation on May 2.
Pollack admits them all, and is scheduled to go to court Thursday to withdraw her not guilty plea to misdemeanor DUI charges stemming from the car crash.
"She wants to plead guilty, but upon our advice, we've urged her to plead no contest because of a pending civil lawsuit," said her attorney Eric Schwartzreich, who along with Miami lawyer Michael Catalano is representing Pollack in the criminal case. "However she takes full responsibility and always has for her affliction."
The attorney noted that, immediately after the accident, Pollack admitted herself into residential treatment for 60 days and has since continued with intensive rehabilitation.
After the criminal case is settled, the JQC will hold a hearing to determine an appropriate professional punishment, which can range from a reprimand to removal from office. The final decision is up to the Florida Supreme Court.
"We intend to illustrate to the JQC that she is rehabilitated," Schwartzreich said. "This is a disease, and she should not be removed from office for her disease."
Also representing Pollack before the JQC is attorney David Bogenschutz, whose response to the commission was filed Wednesday.
"[Pollack's] judicial and legal career are and have been exemplary and without discipline or complaint of any type" before her alcoholism relapse last December, Bogenschutz wrote. "The ultimate sanction of removal is unwarranted in this case. The appropriate sanction is reprimand with special conditions that address this disability."
The judge never made a secret of her struggle with alcoholism, even discussing it on the campaign trail in the spring and summer of 2004. Once elected, she established Broward's misdemeanor drug court program, which allows offenders to have charges dismissed and drug records erased after six months of treatment.
Her oversight of the program won her the respect of both prosecutors and defense lawyers. But when she took the bench drunk twice within four months, even close friends said she had crossed the line.
"She very well could lose her job, at least temporarily," Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said after Pollack's arrest on the drunk driving charge in May. An admirer with his own history of substance abuse struggles, Finkelstein had nothing but kind things to say about Pollack's tenure as a judge. But he said she would not be entitled to a free pass.
"This is a situation where it's reflecting on her doing her job, and there's a duty to protect the public and probably protect the judge from herself."
Pollack's relapse began after what Schwartzreich described as a difficult period in her life. Her mother passed away last year, and her son has been experiencing health problems of his own.
When she showed up for work drunk on Dec. 17, she abruptly stopped court proceedings after about 90 minutes and was later seen arguing with her judicial assistant over her car keys. She later agreed to go into an outpatient rehab facility in Weston.
An investigative panel of the JQC met with her in Tallahassee in February, and Pollack promised to refrain from alcohol or stay off the bench. But on March 19, she was back on the bench while intoxicated.
"Judge [Sharon] Zeller was forced to intervene and ask you to leave the bench," the commission wrote in a notice of formal charges in late May. "You were impaired to the extent that Judge Zeller had to physically assist you in walking."
After that episode, Pollack took a leave of absence and went to an inpatient rehab facility in Gainesville. But she didn't complete it. She left on May 1 and headed home to Broward County. It was 1:30 the next morning when she got into the accident on the 5500 block of West Sunrise Boulevard in Plantation.
Injured in the crash was Dylan Razack, 20, of White Plains, NY. Pollack was charged with four counts of driving under the influence, three of them involving property damage or injury.
The JQC's suspension order came on May 23, the day after formal charges were filed against her. The commission, based in Tallahassee and operating under the authority of the Florida Supreme Court, has the authority to recommend sanctions from a reprimand to a removal from office. The Supreme Court makes the final determination.
Bogenschutz asked the JQC to schedule any hearings in Broward County so that attorneys, judges and other witnesses who would testify on her behalf would not need to travel to Tallahassee.
Pollack was last re-elected in 2010. Her term expires in 2016.
Pollack was the second of three Broward judges accused of driving under the influence within six months. Broward Circuit Judge Cynthia Imperato was arrested in Palm Beach County last November and is fighting those charges. And Broward Circuit Judge Lynn Rosenthal was arrested in late May after driving recklessly on her way to work.
Rosenthal, who had not been drinking, attributed her error to an accidental overdose of the sleep aid Ambien. Although she was arrested on suspicion of DUI, a formal charge was never filed. Voters returned her to office in Tuesday's primary by a comfortable margin.
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