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Court rules judge violated right of teen seeking abortion

Published December 15, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - A Leon County judge who refused to allow a 16-year-old to get an abortion violated the young woman's right to be represented by an attorney of her choice, an appeals court has ruled.

Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey was wrong to toss one of the teenager's attorneys out of the courtroom, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled in a 2-1 decision released Tuesday.

The Tallahassee appeals court in October issued an order allowing the young woman to get an abortion without notifying her parents but did not explain the directive until this week.

Under Florida's new parental notice law, a mature teenager is entitled to a "judicial waiver" that allows the abortion without notice to parents if she can prove she is sufficiently mature to make the decision.

Judge Michael E. Allen wrote the opinion critical of Dempsey, saying the young woman was left to depend on a second lawyer with little courtroom experience when Assistant Public Defender Hunter Pfeiffer was ejected from the courtroom. Pfeiffer was appearing on behalf of the ACLU with attorney Richard Benham and told the judge he had permission from Public Defender Nancy Daniels to handle the case on his own time on a Saturday afternoon.

Dempsey's ruling that his representation of the woman was inappropriate was wrong and struck at the heart of an important right to choose one's own lawyer, the appeals court noted.

No ethical or legal rule prohibits an assistant public defender from representing a client in a noncriminal proceeding, the court ruled.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Robert T. Benton also suggested that Dempsey violated the law when she forced the young woman to divulge the telephone numbers of a boyfriend and another friend and attempted to call the two from the courtroom.

A judge hearing a petition for a judicial waiver has no right to place telephone calls and engage in a fact-finding mission that violates the confidentiality required in such cases, Benton noted.

Judge Paul Hawkes dissented from the majority opinion, saying he did not believe Dempsey improperly dismissed the attorney.

[Last modified December 15, 2006, 00:32:28]

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