A judge in Palm Beach County filed contempt charges against Derrick Jenkins, who was sentenced to 30 days in jail, for a harshly worded letter critical of the judge after Jenkins’ case was dismissed. In addition to being critical, Jenkin’s letter was profane, stating ““f—— hypocrit” and he “cant wait til the voters wake up and get rid of these f—— clowns you call judges.” [sic] Judge Howard Coates did not take kindly and initiated contempt proceedings. Another judge was assigned, and found Jenkins’ words a danger to the orderly administration of justice, found Jenkins guilty or contempt of court, and sentenced him to 30 days in jail with 6 months of probation.
If that sounds a problematic, you’re right. The First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, and its protections are strongest for speech that is critical of the government. There are limits, for instance it wouldn’t be prudent to shout insults and expletives at a judge in open court. However, there was no disruption of any proceedings in this case. In fact, Mr. Jenkins’ underlying case was closed, the court had dismissed his claim against the Sheriff’s Office, so there was no pending matter. The letter would lose its protection if it contained true threats, but claiming an investigation or to have a judge voted out is not a true threat- that’s the Constitutionally preferred way to deal with those officials we disagree with. Judge Warner said, “That’s what you do when you’re unhappy with the judge. You say, ‘we’re going to vote him out of office'” according to the Palm Beach Post.
Appellate arguments were Tuesday, and the statements and questions raised by the judicial panel hearing the appeal don’t appear to take kindly to the arguments in favor of the conviction. The case does not seem to meet any of the exceptions to the protections provided by the first amendment, in spite of the fact the allegations may have been “scandalous and noxious,” in the words of the offended judge. It will likely be several weeks or even a few months until the appellate court rules.