South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Broward judge makes house calls
By Lisa J. Huriash
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
September 13, 2009
This judge makes house calls.
On a recent afternoon, Broward County Judge Lou Schiff examined a 10-room boarding house
in central Pompano Beach, lifting the toilet seat to check for dirt and searching the
showers for mold.
Tenant Ronald Campbell, who had stopped paying the $450 monthly rent and defended against
eviction by claiming he was living in slum conditions, was impressed by the judge's visit.
Such a personal approach "gets down to the bottom of it," Campbell said.
"It gets to the point."
It's unusual, but not unheard of, for civil court judges to take such road trips. But
Schiff, 54, a jurist for 12 years whose docket has many small claims cases, ventures out
of his Deerfield Beach courtroom more than most of his colleagues.
Guarded by his court deputy, he has examined fences for flaws, reviewed kitchen cabinets
for poor craftsmanship and studied auto paint jobs for smears.
Mostly he tours houses and apartments in eviction cases where tenants claim they don't
have to pay rent because the places are uninhabitable. Schiff wants to experience
firsthand the overflowing toilets.
"You have to see it in person to see how bad it is," he said. "If someone
says it smells, you don't appreciate how bad it smells until you go out there and get a
whiff for yourself."
Field trips in criminal cases, especially to crime scenes, get more attention. The issues
in civil court may not seem as compelling, but for each person before him, Schiff knows,
"it is the most important case on the planet."
Broward Chief Judge Victor Tobin said Schiff's trips are a good use of time "to make
sure justice is done."
Usually Schiff will venture to the scene only if both sides agree. Sometimes the lawyers
ask him to go, as in the case last year of a Coral Springs homeowner who couldn't get a
company to replace an improperly installed fence. The posts were supposed to be 7 feet
long, with 2 feet underground for stability.
When Hurricane Wilma blew through in 2005, the fence was toppled and the owner could see
it had been embedded only a few inches below ground. After years of squabbling the man
hired Boca Raton attorney Mark Gilwit. He asked Schiff to come to the house, since getting
the fence posts past courthouse security would have been problematic.
Schiff showed up with a tape measure and eventually ruled for the homeowner.
"He went above and beyond," Gilwit said. "He came out at 7 a.m., before he
had to report to the courthouse."
Fort Lauderdale attorney Alex Soto said several years ago when he was representing a
contractor, Schiff came out to inspect kitchen cabinets at a condo in Deerfield Beach.
"It helps justice to be served," Soto said. If somebody is complaining about
damage to a car, for example, "it's a lot easier to say, 'I rubbed it with my finger
and the crayon mark came off and it wasn't damaged,' or, 'There's a deep gash in the paint
and they should be compensated.' "
On the recent Pompano Beach visit, Schiff was dealing with a case where the landlord tried
to evict Campbell and another tenant for nonpayment. But the men claimed the boarding
house was uninhabitable, it had bed bugs that bit them. Schiff went out last month, made
an inspection, and ordered fixes to plumbing and electrical work.
On the return trip, he signed off on the improvements, Campbell agreed to start paying
rent immediately and the landlord dropped the eviction case.
"Cleaner than my shower," Schiff, smiling, adjudged the bathroom.
He said it's part of a job where he has to be both judge and jury.
"Photographs don't always tell the story," Schiff said. "This is what
county judges are supposed to do."
Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-572-2008.
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