Q&A with Broward County Judge John Hurley

Jurist, prudent: Hurley in chambers

Jurist, prudent: Hurley in chambers

I first met Judge John Hurley long before anyone barked at him in a courtroom (I’ll get to that story later). Hurley (“Jay,” as he’s known to friends and colleagues) was a criminal defense attorney in those days (around 1993, if memory serves). I knew him casually (his brother, Pat, and I were both talk show hosts at WFTL in Fort Lauderdale, and I had met Jay at some radio station events). A graduate of Florida State University, he got his law degree at St. Thomas University School of Law. After leaving service as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy (in which, along with being decorated, he served from 1984 to 1992), Hurley became an assistant state attorney in Broward County before going off into the far more lucrative private practice of criminal defense.

Politically conservative since I’ve known him (and long before that), I’ve always thought of Hurley as a Continental Congress sort of rightie: someone who would have fit in very nicely in a powdered wig among Jefferson and Hancock, Adams and Rutledge, urging caution and respect for both individual liberty and private property rights – rather than the demagogic variety that pollutes the talk radio airwaves these days. ‘Libertarian’ is a word that gets bandied-about so often today that it’s lost all meaning, but I think it very much applies in Hurley’s case: he brings his life’s experiences to the bench, which to my way of thinking, gives him a qualified context in which to make rulings (but might be cause for suspicion amongst certain members of the to-the-right-of-Scalia fringe), but he balances that with a clear vision of the individual liberties at stake, along with the particular idiosyncrasies of each case (and believe me, this can’t always be easy, especially if you’ve witnessed on television the parade of characters that make their way past him in First Appearance Court). When he took his seat on the bench, Broward County didn’t have a permanent first-appearance judge; the job was rotated between 70 different County and Circuit Court judges, each possessing a variety of backgrounds and experience. This meant a certain degree of disorder in the court. For example, let’s say that on Monday, Judge Brandywine, who normal presides in Probate Court, was doing his rotation as First Appearance Judge. Someone charged with bicycle theft appearing before him might get released on a bond of, say, $250. On Tuesday, Judge Pompadour, who sits the rest of the week in Family Court (and has no patience for bicycle thieves to begin with), tells his accused Schwinn thief that he, too, can post bond – but for $3,000. Says Hurley: “Broward is a large metropolitan area, but its criminal justice system lacked a degree of consistency or modern standards in this important area.” When Charlie Crist was elected Florida governor, Hurley was appointed to his transition team. His military and administrative experience made him well-suited to the commission Crist had in mind for him, which was to research, categorize and codify, and then brief the freshly-minted governor about his duties and responsibilities as commander-in-chief of the state’s security and defense apparatus, including the Florida Army and Air National Guards. Several months later, in July 2008, Hurley, once again returned to private law practice, was informed that he was the governor’s selection to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Broward County Judge Jay Spechler. Said Crist in announcing the appointment: “Jay’s experience as a Navy officer, attorney and father will allow him to serve the people of Broward County with fairness and impartiality. I am confident his familiarity with court procedures and respect for the legal process will be beneficial as he considers each case that comes before him.” And that’s exactly what he’s done. “Every other county in Florida had at least one permanent First Appearance Court judge. Broward didn’t have a single one,” reminisces Hurley. “At first glance, maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal. But there’s a ‘butterfly effect’ throughout the county’s criminal justice system.” Hurley says that when he assumed his place on the bench on September 1, 2008, Broward’s jail population was somewhere in the 95-96% range; six months later, that number had fallen to 87%. “Remember,” says Hurley, with the patience of an indulgent teacher schooling an especially dense pupil, “these aren’t dangerous or violent criminals we’re talking about. These weren’t gang lords or drug dealers, who have the money to bond out. These were lower-end, petty criminals who couldn’t afford their bond, and who were doing more good for themselves and their families working, or in a rehab program. Plus,” the fiscal conservative in him making a thoughtful appearance, “at 90% jail capacity, you’re saving around $50,000 a day to Broward County’s taxpayers. Fast forward to today, and the Sheriff is now in a position where he’s able to close down one of the detention facilities. Less people in the penal system, draining resources and being an actual ‘burden to society’ can translate to millions of dollars saved in the course of a year.” This isn’t all about dollars and cents for Hurley. The majority of the crimes he sees aren’t of the sensational serial-killer or family-annihilator variety. They are the kinds of petty economic crimes that can rend the fabric of society in its most vulnerable places. “This isn’t based on anything scientific,” Hurley says, “but I have a feeling I’m seeing more car burglaries, more petty thefts – economic crimes. Someone stealing a barbecue grill and selling it at a flea market, or car rims. Shoplifting – not at Saks, at the grocery store.” Then there was the time a defendant barked at him in court. Stay tuned. – Boomer