Judge's biggest case: the Parkland school shootings
By RAFAEL OLMEDA
Aug. 19, 2018
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Before she found herself presiding over one of the highest-profile cases in the country, Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer did little to draw attention.
Her rulings tended to be non-controversial. Appellate judges found fault with only two of her decisions — an impressively low number for someone who has been on the bench for six years.
But Scherer, 42, couldn't avoid the spotlight once she was randomly assigned the murder case of Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland teenager who admitted killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14 and wounding 17 more.
She ignited a firestorm on social media in August when she ripped into the South Florida Sun Sentinel, two of its reporters and its attorney for publishing sensitive information about the shooter that the Broward School Board had released unintentionally. Worse, she vowed to restrain what the media reports in the future, a practice found repeatedly to be unconstitutional.
Lawyers in Broward were reluctant to discuss Scherer's professional reputation because they have cases pending in front of her. But her outburst did not surprise some of them.
Some called her temperamental — one used the terms "testy" and "cranky" — and they said she is known to start her docket an hour or more after hearings are scheduled.
But another defense lawyer said she is consistently courteous, prepared and polite — "and she rules against me every time."
Scherer is still considering whether to hold the Sun Sentinel and two of its reporters in contempt for publishing the information after agreeing that the school board was authorized to withhold it from public release. Her office declined an interview request Friday morning.
Before she became a judge at the end of 2012, Scherer was a prosecutor in the Broward State Attorney's Office's career criminal unit. Her only direct brush with media attention was decidedly negative — in 2009 her husband of seven years was arrested and charged with dealing cocaine and marijuana.
She filed for divorce the next day, though her husband told police they had separated three months before that.
Scherer is the daughter of one of the most politically connected Republican fundraisers in South Florida. William Scherer, co-founder of the prestigious Conrad & Scherer law firm, was one of the attorneys working for George W. Bush on the presidential election recount of 2000. He was a longtime member of the county's Judicial Nominating Commission and an adviser to Gov. Rick Scott.
William Scherer declined to be interviewed at length, saying only that he was proud of his daughter and that he resigned from the commission in 2011 when it became clear that she would be seeking an appointment to the bench.
That appointment came a year later. She was elected without opposition in 2014 and faces her next election campaign in 2020.
Scherer is now married to a Hollywood police detective, which became an issue in 2016 when she declined to remove herself from an attempted murder case investigated by her husband's department. The Fourth District Court of Appeal stepped in and removed her from the case.
Edward Lopez, the defense lawyer on that case, declined to comment.
Scherer now does not accept cases or sign warrants emanating from Hollywood, according to the Broward chief administrative judge's office.
"Judge Scherer is a dedicated, hard-working judge who has served the 17th Circuit with distinction since her appointment to the bench," said Chief Administratve Judge Jack Tuter.
With the Parkland case, Scherer found it necessary to exert her authority after lawyers went to another judge for an emergency hearing when she was not available. She issued an order in March, two weeks after the shooting, making it clear that she was in charge of the case.
"She tries to do the right thing, and her heart's in the right place," said Bill Gelin, whose "JAABlog" website doesn't shy from criticizing judges. "But she has a tendency to micromanage. She needs to get out of the way and let lawyers litigate their cases."
In August, she berated the Sun Sentinel's lawyer, Dana McElroy, for defending the newspaper's right to publish information on the Stoneman Douglas shooter that had not been properly redacted by the Broward School Board. She threatened to personally use a magic marker to indicate what the paper could and could not publish about the case in the future.
"From now on if I have to specifically write word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print — and I have to take the papers myself and redact them with a Sharpie . then I'll do that," she said.
Her outburst drew criticism from free press advocates.
"The notion that a court can presume to dictate to a newspaper what it can and cannot print is offensive to the very core of the First Amendment and antithetical to constitutional jurisprudence over the last 100 years," said Jeffrey Robbins, a Massachusetts attorney who has represented the Boston Herald and the New York Post on First Amendment issues.
National security would have to be at stake for government to prohibit the media from reporting factual information, he said, using troop movement plans as an example of coverage that could be restricted.
Nova Southeastern University law professor Bob Jarvis said that while the Sun Sentinel is on solid legal ground, its attorney may have been better served if the paper disclosed its possession of the confidential information and advised the judge prior to publishing.
Still, he was critical of how Scherer handled the situation.
"She's a young judge who, I think, gave in to her worst emotions," he said. "Her colleagues would tell her, 'That was not your finest moment.'"