Travesty in Miami harms a little boy

Elian: Elected local judge makes political decision regardless of U.S. and Florida laws.

January 14, 2000

ANYONE who wants to know what's wrong with electing judges need look no farther than the courtroom tragi-farce enveloping the young life of Elian Gonzalez in Miami.

Rosa Rodriguez, a native of Washington and graduate of the University of South Florida and Yale Law School, practiced law in Florida and spent five years as a juvenile public defender in Miami. She would seem well qualified for the bench.

She ran for Circuit Court judge in 1998, employing public relations consultants Mr. and Mrs. Armando Gutierrez. She won, but an opponent claimed she broke campaign finance laws. The Miami-Dade state attorney's office is investigating.

To separate her from prosecutors during this investigation, Judge Rodriguez was reassigned from juvenile to family court. There she sat when Lazaro Gonzalez of Florida petitioned for custody of his grand-nephew, Elian.

Judge Rodriguez might have recused herself because her consultant, Armando Gutierrez, is spokesman-strategist for Lazaro Gonzalez. She could have denied the petition because Florida law favors the surviving natural parent absent proof of unfitness, which was not offered. She should have ruled that Florida state courts lack jurisdiction over an immigration case.

But Judge Rodriguez scheduled a hearing March 6 on whether Elian would be subject to "imminent harm or physical or emotion danger" in Cuba. Presumably, she is putting Cuba on trial. Practically, she is trying to keep Elian in Florida longer than the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) intends.

Having done this, she did not appoint an attorney to represent the father in Cuba, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, or one to represent the interests of the 6-year-old boy.

Judge Rodriguez was not taking her own ruling seriously.

In short, Ms. Rodriguez was not acting as a judge at all, but as an elected representative trying to please constituents, or at least avoid displeasing them.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, a former Miami-Dade state's attorney, is, of course, correct that Judge Rodriguez lacks jurisdiction over immigration. Ms. Reno may be fighting for turf. Indisputably, it is federal turf.

The INS, wisely or not, gave the Miami Gonzalezes time to seek redress in federal court. They chose the wrong court, hoping to fare better there. The result is a travesty that can only harm the law, Elian and U.S. standing in the world.

Good politics says that Elian should be kidnapped from his father and grandparents in Cuba and handed to distant relatives in South Florida.

But law and American family values say otherwise.

When the framers of the U.S. Constitution ruled out elections for judges in the federal system, they knew what they were doing.

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