Tuesday Talk*: Your Free Speech Ends At His Honor’s Feelings

Derrick Jenkins was not pleased that his suit against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department was dismissed, so he decided it was a good idea to let Circuit Judge Howard K. Coates Jr. know how he felt and sent him a kinda motion letter.

The letter ripped the judge as “incompetent” and “unfit to serve,” with expletives added for emphasis.

This barely does justice to Jenkins’ complaints, which expressed how he really felt. It’s worth a full read.

i hope everyone viewing this public document make careful desicions when selecting or electing you, i will hold you personally liable as a man and you’re not immune to jack shit.

The judge was not as pleased to receive this missive as Jenkins was to send it.

And it got Derrick Jenkins thrown in Palm Beach County Jail for 30 days as part of a six-month probation sentence. You can’t publicly curse the judge and get away with it, Jenkins found out the hard way.

But can you? Jenkins didn’t disrupt the proceedings by saying these things in a courtroom. He put them in writing and sent it to the judge. Does he not possess a right to express his views on the judge and his actions?

In a subsequent trial on the criminal contempt before another judge, Judge Coates got his chance to speak his mind.

“You have impugned my reputation in the community by calling me, and I’m not going to repeat it, but an f’ing hypocrite and unfit to serve as a judge,” Coates told Jenkins, according to a transcript. “You have accused me of being incompetent. That causes personal harm. But the harm goes beyond me. It goes to the judicial system as well.”

Jenkins retorted that the judge “should have thick skin.”

Naturally, the article turned to an academic to resolve this conundrum.

Aaron H. Caplan, a First Amendment expert and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said Coates appeared to give the nasty letter more consideration than it deserved.

“The smart move would have been to ignore this guy because he’s not saying anything particularly important,” Caplan said. “However, it does sound like it was contempt of court.”

He explained that people can slam a judge all they want online, but not in court, or in a court filing.

Of course, what Caplan sees as the “smart move” contributes nothing of value to the issue. One would expect most judges to laugh off an angry litigant who says mean things about them in a letter, but the question is whether it constituted criminal contempt, smart or not. And Jenkins had a good point, that the judge should have had a thicker skin and not whined about his hurt feelings.

But Judge Coates did not make the “smart move.”

Coates has said that he charged Jenkins because he viewed the letter as a “calculated” attempt to force Coates off the case, had Jenkins tried to appeal his ruling.

“That’s the problem with these types of letters, when they go over the top in terms of their criticism, in my view, a contentious way,” Coates testified. He added that Jenkins, “is making personal comments that would provide a basis for me to recuse myself from any further proceedings in the case, if it were to go forward.”

Many litigants try to manufacture a basis for recusal of a judge they, for whatever reason, dislike. Judges routinely take it in stride and ignore it, thus blunting the effort. How holding Jenkins in criminal contempt helped Coates’ argument against recusal is a bit of a mystery, but for Jenkins, it mattered less than the outcome of his criminal contempt trial.

Judge Panse found Jenkins’ letter was “a clear and present danger to the orderly administration of justice,” and declared him guilty of indirect criminal contempt of court. He told Jenkins it’s a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

Panse sentenced Jenkins to six months of probation, with a requirement to serve the first 30 days behind bars because of the “serious nature of what you did.”

On appeal, Jenkins, who now had lawyers, challenged his conviction as a violation of his First Amendment rights.

Andrew Greenlee and Greg Rosenfeld, lawyers for Jenkins, filed an appeal Oct. 30, that argues the contempt ruling “clearly violated” Jenkins’ Constitutional rights and his conviction should be overturned.

“His letter … said he could not ‘wait til voters wake up and get rid of these f—— clowns you call judges,’” the lawyers wrote, adding, “such speech is entitled to the highest protection under the First Amendment.”

Putting aside that Judge Coates is a thin-skinned whiner, and Judge Panse should be forever barred from using the phrase “clear and present danger,” was Jenkins’ motion letter to Coates an exercise of Free Speech, or was it constrained by the court’s inherent authority to maintain the “orderly administration of justice”?

Why can’t an angry litigant tell a judge he sucks?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply, and hopefully Judge Kopf will relate his “you’re a Nazi” story for context, even though he usually saves it for the night before Christmas.

29 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Your Free Speech Ends At His Honor’s Feelings

  1. Skink

    It wasn’t a motion in any sense–it was a letter sent to the judge. The judge ordered it be filed in the record. Whatever “clear and present danger”* existed was not manifest until it was filed.

    The concern over appeal and recusal is a mystery, especially in a case where the plaintiff sues for a violation of his friend’s rights concerning a seatbelt violation. That one is sure to come back after appeal.

    * I can’t put it aside; I just can’t. It’s an antique. Like Ming Dynasty antique.

    Reply
  2. RICHARD M GEORGES

    The unhappy Judge might consider taking the advice of Marcus Aurelius each morning. When someone accuses us, the best response is “It is a good thing that he doesn’t know everything about me”. Or:
    ““ Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction. ”

    Reply
      1. Grant

        Having read Mr. Georges quotation, if Mr. Jenkins had profaned Judge Coates using Marcus Aurelius’s writing style, Mr. Jenkins would probably be a free man.

        Also, his letter would not have made my head hurt.

        Reply
  3. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    It is not Christmas yet. But, I do have two stories (out of many) as illustrations.

    A fellow who rather consistently referred to me as “KKKKopf” upped his game and filed a “Fuck You Motion.” I draftered an order denying the “Fuck You Motion” with a “hearty you too!” The Clerk’s office begged me to recall the order because it was “unseemly.” To my everlasting shame, I did. A simple denial was entered.

    It is not unusual to get “motions” or letters that are both profane and abusive. But one of the strangest ones I ever got was after one of the partial-birth abortion cases. It said that I should and would “rot in hell” and suggested that my mother had made a huge mistake by not aborting me. It concluded with “Sincerely.” I thought the expression of sincerity by the writer was an especially odd but fascinating touch.

    I look forward to letters, motions and even utterances like these in court with anticipation. They lighten the boredom. I doubt that I would ever try to hold any of these folks in contempt for saying nasty things about me. Besides, truth is an absolute defense.

    All the best.

    RGK

    Reply
      1. CLS

        Our resident jurist is on point today. And I’m grateful he told the “Fuck You Motion” story because as soon as I started reading this post it came to mind.

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  4. Henry Berry

    In court filings of mine as a pro se litigant (variously plaintiff and defendant), I filed a motion alleging lawyers with contempt of court, obstruction of justice, and fabrication of evidence all so obvious and easily exposed that the lawyers were treating the judges as “clowns and zeros.” I tend to agree since the judges don’t seem to mind, and in fact fail to address my allegations or get testy with me when I raise them in hearings. I’m waiting to see how all this turns out. So far I’m trying as hard as I can to show the judges proper respect both out of a natural courtesy and also the wish not to be charged with contempt of court when all around the good judges are playing them for fools.

    Reply
      1. Henry Berry

        Thanks, SHG, but I’m getting desperate. The latest travesties are in a trespass case against me (it took me three tries to get arrested). To all appearances, one judge has been involved in fabrication of evidence, and the only explanation I can come up with for judges’ serial failures to take up evidence and requests for evidentiary hearings I have filed is collusion with the cover-up. As for “rules are rules,” I’m amused, and have said so, that one judge keeps reminding that though a pro se defendant (this is the trespass case), I am subject to the rules. My repeated reply is something like, “I wish everyone was,” referring to the lawyers. As you can imagine, it’s a odd situation when one is the only one respecting and following the rules (this coming from someone who has gotten a default from a CT county state’s attorney/district attorney for an illegal wiretap on my phone). I’ve tried grievance procedures in addition to lawsuits, only to run again and again into perjury and escalated targeting of me. As I told one judge joining into the fun of harassing me and trying to get me into jail, “If I weren’t paranoid, I never would have been able to figure it out.” Thanks for your reply — I’ll keep my fly down. Not much to see down there anyway.

        Reply
        1. SHG Post author

          Henry, this was my way of gently saying that you’re doing yourself no favor by exposing yourself here. That said, I will abide my rules and post your comments. Do as you must.

          Reply
          1. Henry Berry

            I know this can go back and forth forever. But one more brief remark if I may: I’m not so concerned about doing myself favors. My major concern is exposing rank, unaddressed, chronic criminal activity in the Connecticut judicial and legal system, by any legal means and forum available to me or which comes up for me. Keep in mind, I’m not the law-breaker here, not the one cynically and repeatedly subverting the system. Besides exposure, my concern is not being fraudulently and conspiratorially put into jail. If it takes caustic language and unorthodox actions to do this, so be it.

            Reply
  5. kemn

    So, I have to be nice to judges all the time? I wanna be a judge, then I can throw people who say mean things about me in jail!

    That being said, why are you a judge if you can’t handle being called names? Is he a college student, or something?

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  6. PseudonymousKid

    I’m glad Jenkins isn’t pro se anymore. He was stupid, but within his rights to criticize the judge who tossed his bogus case. The judges overstepped here. Sure, they have broad inherent authority, but it isn’t unlimited thankfully. With all that great power comes great responsibility.

    Speaking of which, judges are scary. They have cages they can put people in who call them names. They have people armed with guns and shackles who do what they say. Think twice before letting one know what you really think about all the lame jokes.

    Reply
  7. Aaron G

    30 days jail within 6 months probation? You can get less time for brandishing. Maybe the pen really is mightier than the sword.

    Reply
  8. Jake

    After reading the letter I am left wondering whether the judge thought Jenkins would find a few weeks to cool off in the tank preferable to an open-ended stay at South County Mental.

    Reply
      1. Jake

        Sigh. I’d have imagined, having known me so long and so well, you’d realize mental health and articulate writing are not directly proportional.

        Reply

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