LAW AND DISORDER: The Backroom Deal Rise & Tragic Tabloid Fall Of Judge Leslie Fleisher


INQUIRER: Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Leslie Fleisher [not pictured, above] will step down March 15 from the judgeship she has held since 2001, Fleisher’s attorney confirmed today. Talk of Fleisher’s resignation has been widespread around the city’s Criminal Justice Center for several months after lawyer complaints about her courtroom management and judicial temperament. Fleisher has declined comment on her troubles with the legal community – including several lawyer complaints to the state Judicial Conduct Board – described in The Inquirer on Dec. 22. MORE

PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE: Defense lawyer Michael Coard recently had a legal dustup with Judge Leslie Fleisher over how she treated him in court. Fleisher, infamous for bizarre, imperious behavior, pitched a fit over a minor procedural matter in the delay of a case. She forced Coard to come before her — he had to leave a Temple University class he was teaching, and put off a hearing in a murder case that same day — so she could berate him in open court for, among other things, not reading the Legal Intelligencer, and for his posture: “I think you’d better sit up in my room. People sit up in my courtroom. They are not lounged back like they’re watching television or something.”  When Coard, who is black, responded with a formal complaint, a retreating Fleisher confided to another African-American attorney she was close to that she had “no idea who Coard was” — that is, somebody who would fight back and rally support in the small legal world of the Criminal Justice Center. As if that would be a reason to treat him with respect. […]

Fleisher’s behavior, for example, is not only offensive, but threatens adjudicative fairness. A buzz was set off within the Public Defender’s office not long judge-leslie.jpgago when, mid-trial, she demanded that police officers in her court and in the hallway — some 15 cops in all — follow her back into chambers. Fleisher wouldn’t allow either the public defender or the district attorney to accompany them. Three minutes went by. Four, five. Seven. The cops filed out. What was that conversation about? No one, except the participants, knows. The trial continued. A defense lawyer told me that if he’d been working that trial, he would have gone ballistic, demanded to get what was discussed on the record, sought a change of venue, pushed to be held in contempt of court — it was, in other words, a troubling disregard of legal procedure that could corrupt a trial’s outcome.

All this begins to make the strange way we elect judges infuriating. Take Fleisher. She wanted to be a judge. She had a close friend, Frank Gillen, who was a Teamster. Governor Ridge threw a bone to the union by appointing her to a vacant Common Pleas judgeship in 2001. She still had to run in the next election, though. So in 2003, the Teamsters blanketed the city, drumming up ward support. Edgar Howard, head of the 10th, one of the big African-American wards, got behind her.  “As a favor to the union,” Howard explains. Whether it’s a union pulling the levers, or consultants, it’s all about deals. And what’s infuriating is the way operatives like Howard dismiss it with a shrug: “That’s how you work.” MORE

RELATED: In the fall, Philadelphia police found a Common Pleas Court judge bleeding and bruised at her Old City townhouse. Leslie Fleisher – then mired in controversy over her courtroom management – told police that her boyfriend had choked her and pushed her against a wall in the home with enough force to cut her scalp during the Oct. 17 incident, according to court documents released yesterday by the state Attorney General’s Office. As she fled her home on Third Street, her boyfriend – Lewis B. Palmer, a detective with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office – chased her, Fleisher told police. Outside, he pushed her against a brick wall and kicked her after she fell to the ground, according to an affidavit of probable cause, the charging document in the case. It is unclear from the court papers what time the incident occurred or who contacted police. Palmer, 48, was charged Tuesday with aggravated assault against the judge and related counts. Palmer left a voice-mail message with The Inquirer yesterday and referred all calls to his attorney, A. Charles Peruto Jr. Said Peruto, “I’ve looked at the charges, interviewed my client, and I am completely confident that this will be an acquittal.” MORE

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