Broward Circuit Judge Merrilee Ehrlich. Photo: Melanie Bell/ALM

A Broward Circuit judge who was weeks from retirement quit Monday in the wake of a viral video showing her denying a jailed inmate’s request for a breathing tube. The woman died days later.

Chief Judge Jack Tuter. Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM

Ehrlich found herself in the hot seat after video surfaced on social media of her interaction with Sandra Twiggs, a 59-year-old woman who suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma.

Twiggs died at home days after the April 15 court appearance, in which Ehrlich on a video link to a Broward Sheriff’s holding center curtly denied her request for a breathing tube. The cause of death has not been made public.

News later broke that Ehrlich planned to retire this summer, more than two years before her term was set to expire in January 2021. The judge rose to public office after winning the November 2008 general election. She then ran unopposed in 2014 for a six-year term.

Broward Chief Circuit Judge Jack Tuter released a statement Sunday saying only the Florida Supreme Court has the power to remove a judge from office, adding, “In light of recent events we have decided Judge (Merrilee) Ehrlich will be told not to return to the courthouse as her retirement is effective June 30.”

Ehrlich followed up Monday with an email to Tuter saying she was moving up her retirement to 5 p.m. Monday.

Broward Circuit spokeswoman Meredith Bush said Sunday that the judge’s retirement plans preceded the furor over the court hearing. She said Ehrlich announced in March that she would step down in June.

“It had been planned,” Bush said. “She sent in her resignation letter to the governor a couple weeks ago.”

Twiggs appeared before the judge via video from the North Broward Bureau, which houses Broward Sheriff’s inmates with special needs, according to its website. She faced misdemeanor domestic violence charges.

She came before Ehrlich for an initial appearance on bond, a hearing required within 48 hours of an arrest to determine if law enforcement officers have probable cause to hold an inmate.

Ehrlich was in the courthouse while Twiggs communicated with her on camera. Broward Circuit Court livestreams and records bond court proceedings.

A YouTube account under the name South Florida Corruption uploaded the video. It showed an exasperated Ehrlich yelling at Twiggs and interrupting her as the woman attempted to answer her questions.

Twiggs, who was in a wheelchair, rested her head against her hand at one point. She coughed repeatedly during the hearing.

“Can someone there give her water as a kindness?” Ehrlich asked the jail staff after one of the coughing spells.

When the judge asked Twiggs if she needed water, Twiggs replied she did and also requested a breathing tube.

Ehrlich answered, “Ma’am, I’m not here to talk about your breathing treatment.”

The judge also scolded attorneys in the courtroom, instructing them not to interrupt her.

“Oh, lord!” Ehrlich said after Twiggs tried to ask for the breathing tube. “Will you say something, counsel, in the microphone so that she can hear you, and you can give her instructions about propriety in court? I’m not going to spend all day with her interrupting me.”

Howard Finkelstein. Photo: Melanie Bell/ALM

The interaction prompted Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein to send a letter to Tuter, calling for Ehrlich’s removal from criminal court.

“What I saw … makes me ashamed to be part of the justice system,” Finkelstein told the Daily Business Review. “Here’s a woman who couldn’t breathe. All she wanted was to breathe. But the judge was too … busy processing a case that she couldn’t see the human being in front of her, and that human being was gasping for air.”

In his letter, Finkelstein described Ehrlich’s behavior as “aggressive and tyrannical,” and wrote it showed a “lack of emotional fitness to sit on the bench.”

Ehrlich did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Everybody has a bad day, and everybody can be a little off,” Finkelstein told the DBR. “That was not just a little off. That was mean, it was abusive, it was cruel, and it was gratuitous.”

 

Read Finkelstein’s letter:

Watch the video: