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Law and Disorder : Tart, tough-talking Judge Judith Sheindlin presides over the grim pageant of dysfunction known as Manhattan's family court. 'I can't stand stupid, and I can't stand slow,' she snaps.

BUCKING THE SYSTEM: Four people who won't give up the fight to help America. Part II: Judge Judith Sheindlin. Bucking the System: While many Americans fear that society is unraveling, some still struggle to hold it together. Times Staff Writer Josh Getlin profiles four people from across the country who refuse to give up the fight. THURSDAY: Like the other residents of her Chicago housing project, Hazel Johnson for years was resigned to the toxic contamination that hangs over the city's South Side. Now, she's become an environmental crusader, armed with studies that show 3 out of 5 African-Americans or Latinos live near uncontrolled toxic-waste sites.

February 14, 1993|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sheindlin dons a black robe, straightens her hair in the tiny cubicle that passes for her chambers and strides into court. It's a small, dimly lit room with a horseshoe of orange swivel chairs bolted to the floor. The baseboards are peeling, an occasional cockroach scurries down the wall, and car alarms shriek up from the streets below. Within minutes, the room is bustling.

"You, sir, take off those sunglasses!" Sheindlin orders a teen-age father, who has come to court in a child-custody dispute. "And take off that baseball hat while you're at it, too. I mean it, mister. No hats in court!"

Outside, bailiffs yell out cases on the docket like vendors selling hot dogs at Yankee Stadium: "Ruiz, Jones, Perrera, Thompson, Washington!" Inside, recording clerks type furiously as Sheindlin begins a long day of cases--53 to be exact--that will last until 6 p.m.

The morning starts slowly but picks up when she approves the settlement of a sex case: A teen-ager is accused of sodomizing a younger boy, but the victim's family doesn't want him to testify. Under the deal, the first-time offender agrees to enter therapy.

"Let's go!" says Sheindlin, clapping her hands. "Keep it moving!"

Lawyers rush in and out, hurriedly whispering to clients before the judge takes over. Each case is a blur of motion and noise, an eruption of legalese that's quickly explained to families as they're hustled out of the room.

The parade halts when Mercedes Perrera steps forward.

Child welfare officials contend that the grandmother whipped three of her grandchildren with a belt, and they want to remove them from her care. A police officer, an emergency-room nurse and a caseworker have all testified that they saw raised welts on the children's buttocks, backs and arms.

But none took photographs of the wounds, as required in a case of suspected child abuse. Sheindlin is astonished.

"How can you forget that?" she demands.

"I . . . I didn't know," the nurse stammers.

When the grandmother testifies, she denies hitting anyone. Sheindlin cuts her off and orders bailiffs to bring the children to court by 3 p.m.

Impossible, says a caseworker. Can't be done, protests a child welfare attorney. Five hours later, at 3 o'clock sharp, the children file into the courtroom.

"I want you to tell me the truth," Sheindlin says gently to one of the girls, a 12-year-old with enormous brown eyes. "Who hit you?"

"My grandmother," the girl answers quietly. The other two children tell a similar tale, and the prosecutor beams.

Yet Sheindlin isn't finished. She takes over the questioning and learns that the children want to leave the foster care home where they've been for three weeks. Although their grandmother frightens them, they want to live with her and believe she'll calm down.

"This woman is guilty of excessive corporal punishment," Sheindlin says. "But these children want to go home, and we're not in the business of breaking up families. So I'll allow it if the grandmother will accept a caretaker in her home, to reduce the pressures on her. OK? Let's go."

Toward the end of the day, the juvenile delinquency cases are heard. First up is Mark H., a 15-year-old who viciously beat an elderly subway attendant. He served 18 months in an Upstate detention facility for that crime but was arrested for armed robbery soon after returning to his old neighborhood. He shows no emotion as he stands before the judge.

"I'm sending you Upstate again for 18 months, and the next time it might even be longer," she says angrily. "Understand, mister? You're not such a smart guy."

The cases pile up: 30 by noon, 40 by midafternoon. By 5 p.m., when other judges have begun wrapping up the day's work, Sheindlin is still plowing through the files, one by one. Her voice becomes strained and tense.

"Let's go!" she tells the bailiff. "Let's bring 'em in!"

*

Does any of it make a difference? Sheindlin and other judges like to think they're dispensing the wisdom of Solomon. But they rely on gut instincts, often not knowing the full story of children in crisis. They usually operate in the dark. And that may be the worst tragedy of all in family court.

Late in the day, the final cases are heard, and one of them involves Jose Acosta, a dark-haired man in his 20s who recently did 31 months for grand theft auto. As the building empties out, he's in the lobby holding his infant son, Jose Jr., and yelling at him to stop crying.

"Shut up!" he says angrily, smothering the child's face with his fist. "Shut up, I mean it! Right now!"

Minutes later, he's standing before Sheindlin, trying to win sole custody of the boy from his maternal aunt. The mother is in jail on a drug bust, he explains, and he hasn't seen her in months. Acosta looks cocky and impatient, a bored young man in a black leather jacket, and the judge is not impressed.

"I see frustration on your face," she says icily. "But there's only one innocent person here, and that's the little boy who's crying outside."

Acosta is stunned, yet holds his fire. Sheindlin looks at him warily, then grants the man continuing custody, pending a city investigation.

He quickly walks out of the courtroom to pick up his son and go home. To get this woman off his back.

But the judge stops him with a final warning.

"Do the right thing, Mr. Acosta," she says with a hint of fury. "If you don't, I will."

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