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Judge Merrilee Ehrlich Planned to Retire, But a Controversial Video Forced Her Out Sooner

[caption id="attachment_18528" align="aligncenter" width="621"] Broward Circuit Judge Merrilee Ehrlich. Photo: Melanie Bell/ALM[/caption] A Broward Circuit judge on the eve of retirement has been told not to return to work in the wake of a viral video showing her denying a woman’s request for a breathing tube. "The chief Judge cannot remove a constitutional officer from office. Only the Florida Supreme Court can remove a judge," Chief Judge Jack Tuter wrote in the email sent to the Sun Sentinel and Daily Business Review Sunday. "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." [caption id="attachment_18510" align="alignleft" width="245"] Chief Judge Jack Tuter. Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM[/caption] 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 asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Twiggs died at home days after the April 15 court appearance, in which Ehrlich curtly denied her request for a breathing tube. Her 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 Circuit spokeswoman Meredith Bush said the judge's retirement plans preceded the video. She said Ehrlich announced in March that she would step down in June. “It had been planned,” Bush said Sunday. "She sent in her resignation letter to the governor a couple weeks ago." Gov. Rick Scott's office did not immediately respond to a request for a copy of the retirement letter. Twiggs appeared before the judge on April 15 via video from the North Broward Bureau, which houses inmates with special needs, according to its website. She faced misdemeanor domestic violence charges. She came before Ehrlich for a first appearance, or bond court, where judges hear cases within 48 hours of an inmate's arrest to determine if law enforcement officers had probable cause to jail them.

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

But 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 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. But 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."

[caption id="attachment_18511" align="alignleft" width="245"] Howard Finkelstein. Photo: Melanie Bell/ALM[/caption]

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.” Watch the video: [falcon-embed src="embed_1"]