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Judge's style shocks few Florida lawyers

February 22, 2007|Paula McMahon | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — His friends say Broward County Circuit Court Judge Larry Seidlin could have been a stand-up comedian and should have been the first judge to preside over "The People's Court."

But he shocked many television viewers last week when the robed Seidlin leaned back in his chair in chambers and pronounced that Anna Nicole Smith's "body belongs to me now" and "that baby is in a cold, cold storage room."

A week later, as courtroom arguments dragged on, the Broward County chief medical examiner told Seidlin that, despite embalming and cold storage, Smith's body was decomposing.

The New York Post called Seidlin a "wacky judge." CNN's Nancy Grace said on the air that was not how she would refer to "the dead body of a lady waiting to be buried."

For attorneys who frequent his courtroom, the judge's "open mouth, insert foot" style was no shock. They say he's been talking that way in juvenile and probate court for years.

"As an office we are pleased that he is no longer on the juvenile bench. He never acted like a real judge although he was very lenient with our kids," said Howard Finkelstein, a Broward County public defender. Finkelstein forced Seidlin's wife, Belinda, from her job as an investigator when Finkelstein became her boss.

Seidlin said he was not bothered by the criticism. But he wishes he had chosen his words about Smith's body more carefully.

"I should have just said 'the body is under the jurisdiction of the court now,' " Seidlin said in a phone interview. "Obviously there are times when you wish it had been said a little differently."

Smith's death Feb. 8 in Florida at 39 set off an emotional and legal struggle between her last companion and her estranged mother over the estate and burial.

Lawyers in the case say Seidlin has let the proceedings take on a circus air -- a charge he brushes off.

On Wednesday, Seidlin said he would make his ruling by Friday.

Seidlin, 56, knows people will dissect every word he utters when he decides who will get custody of Smith's remains. After 28 years on the bench, he said, none of his high-profile cases had brought so many cameras and reporters to his chambers.

Seidlin says that his record speaks for itself and that he thinks there is an element of jealousy about his big case.

"I think people who've been in the courtroom in front of me for days would say we've gotten a lot done in that time," Seidlin said.

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