Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John Schlesinger looks like he could play a judge on TV. Good looking, with a full shock of iron-gray hair and a granite jaw, Schlesinger is telegenic.
But it's his wife, Marilyn Milian of "The People's Court," who's the television judge, and that helps explain why Schlesinger reported a net worth of $7.18 million, including a $2.7 million Coral Gables, Fla., home, $1.8 million in the bank and a $95,000 Aston Martin sports car.
The total reported last month on annual judicial disclosure forms makes him the second richest South Florida circuit judge. He declined to comment. Palm Beach Circuit Judge Elizabeth Maass narrowly edged out Schlesinger as the area's wealthiest judge with a reported net worth of $7.2 million.
"I would attribute it to a 28-year marriage to a husband I love who has been extraordinarily successful in his own right," Maass said. Her husband is admiralty lawyer Robb Maass, a partner with boutique firm Alley Maass Rogers & Lindsay in Palm Beach. "And also both of us being financially conservative."
Her wealth includes a $2.4 million home, $1.1 million in mutual funds and a $800,000 second home in Buenos Aires.
Judges reported their assets and liabilities for last year to the state Ethics Commission. Assets and liabilities, which are specified on the forms, along with the unspecified value of business interests and consumer debt, factor into a complex equation used to calculate a judge's net worth.
For South Florida judges, assets run the gamut from millions of dollars spread among foreign vacation homes, aircraft and stock portfolios to much more modest disclosures that include student loans and humbler personal effects.
Whether net worth has any bearing on a judge's demeanor depends on who one asks.
Circuit Judge Charles Greene is the wealthiest circuit judge in Broward County with a net worth of $5.7 million, which includes a $2.4 million residence and a $600,000 Beechcraft BE90 twin-engine aircraft.
"I would like to think that anyone, regardless of their financial abilities, is going to rule based on the evidence and not any other reason," he said. But "obviously some sense of financial independence gives one the opportunity to devote themselves to public service more so than others."
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein suggested a judge's wealth might make the jurist more comfortable in dealing with tough decisions.
"If you are a person who has millions of dollars, it gives you the independence you want judges to have," he said. "Take a judge who's involved in a trial, isn't so wealthy, and one of the litigants is rich and powerful: Do I think that will affect the judge's decision? The answer is it certainly could, and it certainly has. With wealth comes independence."
Judicial campaign consultant Bob Levy of Miami is quick to note that the accumulation of wealth is not uncommon for judges who worked in the private sector before taking office, and campaign consultants frequently view personal wealth as a sign that a veteran lawyer is good at the job.
A robust war chest can also bulletproof a judge from political challenges.
Levy warned that a cash-strapped judge could be susceptible to corrupting influences, citing the case of former Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ralph Person. He resigned in 1994 in the wake of allegations that he borrowed $10,000 in a deal brokered by an attorney who appeared before him. After Person stepped down, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the state Judicial Qualifications Commission dropped investigations into the alleged loans.
In May, Broward County Judge Robert Zack ended 20 years on the bench after he was accused of accepting $3,600 in loans and meals from an attorney who practiced in front of him in 2007. He also was accused of not disclosing upwards of $90,000 in loans from bail bondsmen. The Miami-Dade state attorney's office cleared Zack of criminal wrongdoing in March, and he declared personal bankruptcy.
Wealth can cause conflicts of interest for judges, too. Maass noted potential conflicts can hide inside an extensive stock portfolio.
"If you're in the civil division, you need to be aware of any potential conflicts. I keep track of stocks I own," she said. Maass was a longtime civil judge before moving to the family division in 2008. She presided over a civil fraud lawsuit that pitted billionaire financier Ronald O. Perelman against New York investment giant Morgan Stanley which resulted in a $1.45 billion verdict against Morgan Stanley in 2005. The verdict was overturned by Florida's 4th District Court of Appeal in 2007.
Finkelstein said wealth can breed a troublesome camaraderie with powerful interests.
"If you are a wealthy judge with lots of political connections, sometimes you have to serve them instead of the law," he said. "Even the wealthy do the wrong things sometimes because they have to stay a member of the club."
Only one circuit judge in South Florida listed a negative net worth -- Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Leon Firtel, who reported he was $33,002 in the red.
County property records list a 16th-floor Jockey Club condo unit on Biscayne Bay in Miami in Firtel's name. He valued the homestead property at $360,000 and listed a mortgage and equity line totaling $361,803. Subtracting his liabilities from assets gives a balance of $87,000, and the disclosure form did not elaborate on debt that drove Firtel into the negative column. He did not return calls seeking comment by deadline.
Broward Circuit Judge Elijah Williams reported the second-lowest net worth, at $33,000. His disclosure form indicates he is upside down on the mortgage on his Plantation, Fla., home, which is valued at $250,440 and has a mortgage balance of $322,051.
"Like most Americans my house did devalue, so that was a part of it," Williams said. But he said the primary reason his net worth is low is because he gives up to half of his take-home pay to needy people in his community to cover electric bills, mortgage payments and to fund youth basketball leagues.
Broward Circuit Judge Carlos Rebollo, who completed his first year on the bench in January, was next with a net worth of $47,000 including $56,000 in equity on a single-family home and condo he owns in Plantation. He declined to comment.
As election season nears, personal finances can have a profound effect on campaigns because candidates can give themselves personal loans. Campaign consultants view a weak financial portfolio as a sign of potential vulnerability.
"Chances are you're not willing to give up everything you've got to win a seat," Levy said. In one situation Levy recalled, a candidate was so nervous about the expense of campaigning that he placed a valuable investment in his campaign account without even liquidating it.
"I remember a candidate years ago whose net worth was $200,000, and he would put a $100,000 CD in his campaign account and wouldn't even break it."