A state appeals court in Florida heard the case of a Black man who was jailed for 30 days in 2019 after writing a critical letter to the judge who dismissed a civil rights law suit he’d filed against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Derrick Jenkins, a 41-year-old married father, spent a month at Palm Beach County Jail after penning a letter slamming Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Howard K. Coates Jr. in 2019.
The letter ripped Coates as “incompetent” and “unfit to serve,” after the judge dismissed the $500 million civil lawsuit Jenkins filed against the sheriff’s office, in which he alleged his friend’s time was wasted over a seat belt citation.
In a typed letter sent on Jan. 25, 2019, Jenkins employed profanity as he laid out several grievances against Coates, asking that he recuse himself from the case, and demanding compensation from him in federal court because his constitutional rights had been violated.
Jenkins wrote that he believed he did not receive a fair and impartial review of his claim because Coates was “incompetent,” and said he hopes the public thinks carefully about “selecting or electing” him in the future. “I will hold you personally liable as a man and you’re not immune to jack sh-t,” he wrote. He closed the letter by demanding an investigation of the matter.
In response, Coates filed a contempt charge against him.
According to Coates, the letter included “statements and representations calculated to lessen the authority and dignity of the Court” and “impugned my reputation in the community.”
“You have impugned my reputation in the community by calling me, and I’m not going to repeat it, but an f’ing hypocrite and unfit to serve as a judge,” he also told Jenkins, according to court records, “You have accused me of being incompetent. That causes personal harm. But the harm goes beyond me. It goes to the judicial system as well.”
County Judge Robert Panse was assigned to the case, in April 2019, and Jenkins served as his own attorney at the trial, saying the judge should have “thick skin.”
Panse found the letter to be “a clear and present danger to the orderly administration of justice.” He sentenced Jenkins to six months probation, with the first 30 days to be served in jail.
In an appeal of the conviction, attorneys for Jenkins argued that he was “engaged in political speech” and that the six-month sentence wasn’t justified. They also said the name-calling in the letter does not constitute a threat.
“I believe when I wrote my documents, I was using free speech,” Jenkins testified in 2019. “But I had no intent to cause anyone any harm.”
Jenkins served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat soldier in the Army, and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Attorney Andrew Greenlee, who represented Jenkins in court on Tuesday, May 18, said the letter wasn’t harmful to the justice system because the lawsuit had already been dismissed by the time it was sent.
“The letter Mr. Jenkins sent could have and should have simply been relegated to the trash bin,” he said. Because the case was closed, his attorneys argued that his speech was protected by the First Amendment.
Florida Assistant Attorney General MaryEllen Farrell said that when Jenkins filed his “very serious, egregious letter that makes accusations and threats against the judge,” he lost his First Amendment rights.
“Certainly when it’s filed in a court file, it’s no longer in a public arena,” Farrell argued. “That is a place where free expression and free speech is regularly and traditionally restricted. So when we’re talking about a court file there is a different standard applied.”
“If the case is over and a disgruntled litigant writes the judge and says, ‘Look, I think you did a lousy job, you missed these points,’ what’s wrong with that?” appellate Judge Dorian K. Damoorgian of the Fourth District Court of Appeals questioned on Tuesday. “I mean, judges have to have thick skin too.”
A decision by the appellate court could come within the next few months.