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If Anna Nicole Smith case is a circus, judge is ringmaster

Story Highlights

• Judge in Anna Nicole Smith case accused of allowing case to drag on
• Judge's "long-winded" statements have become staple of proceedings
• Some observers say Judge Larry Seidlin is performing for the cameras
• A justice advocacy blog says Seidlin is a victim of "his inner comedian"
By Ann O'Neill and Kate King
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(CNN) -- Judge Larry Seidlin, with his distinctive Bronx honk, down-to-earth approach and plain language, is as much a part of the show in Broward Circuit Court as the case he is presiding over.

Seidlin is hearing arguments over the status of the earthly remains of recently deceased tabloid fixture Anna Nicole Smith. But arguments over child custody and paternity have made their way into the courtroom.

Some legal observers, and even one of the participants, say Seidlin has allowed the proceedings to become a circus.

He bristled at that accusation Wednesday in court.

"Don't use that term. It turns me off," Seidlin scolded a lawyer. "There is no circus here, my friend. ... There's nothing circus. If you want to say circus, say circus equals attention." (Watch a profile of the judge Video)

CNN's senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin sharply criticized Seidlin for allowing lawyers to squabble for days followed by dramatic but marginally relevant testimony. (Watch the judge question a key witness Video)

"This may be the most ridiculous legal proceeding I have ever watched," Toobin said. "This judge is one of the least competent judges I have ever seen. He is letting this thing meander all over creation, mostly because he seems to enjoy being on television."

Court TV anchor Lisa Bloom says it's all "wearing a little thin."

Closer to home, Seidlin also has critics. According to the Miami Herald, 22 percent of the lawyers responding to the 2004 Broward County Bar poll found Seidlin unqualified.

A blog of the Justice Advocacy Association of Broward concludes that Seidlin is, among other things, a victim of "his inner comedian."

Seidlin, who was in court, could not be reached. But Dale Ross, the Broward Circuit's chief judge, responded to CNN in an email: "It is not appropriate for me to make comment regarding the facts of a particular case assigned to another judge, nor his or her legal rulings, nor the handling of the case."

Colorful comments

With his chatty asides about his wife, his lunch, his daily run and his New York roots, Seidlin is holding his own against the case's colorful characters. (Full story )

A sample of Wednesday's bons mots from the bench:

  • "Maybe this eccentric judge can get something done."
  • "Let's face it. Money is the root of all evil. Am I right?"
  • "Later on, you're going to have me with a box of tissues."
  • The judge's offbeat folksiness combines the directness of a Judge Judy with the touchy-feely common sense of a Dr. Phil. He could be auditioning for his own television show.

    "I think he's a combination of Jackie Mason and my yoga instructor," said Bloom. "He wants to talk about the journey, and everybody reducing their stress, and everybody putting their arms around each other singing 'Kumbaya.' "

    "He's very entertaining, there's no question about it," she added. "But it's not about entertainment. At Court TV we keep in mind that these are real people here."

    Smith, famous for her career as a Playboy Playmate, jeans model, reality TV show star and long legal fight for a stake in her late husband's fortune, died February 8 at a casino hotel near Hollywood, Florida.

    Seidlin took jurisdiction a week ago over her body, quirkily referring to it as "that baby" and declaring that "it belongs to me now."

    He allowed television cameras into his chambers, then into the courtroom. He ordered a swab of DNA taken for a paternity test and released Smith's will to the media. He said he would hold hearings for as long as it takes to bring the warring sides together.

    Each day in court begins with an unusually long statement by Seidlin.

    On Wednesday he began by saying that while the proceedings might not be as important as the war in Iraq, a little girl's life is at stake.

    'Grieving process'

    "We're all grieving together," Seidlin admonished the parties -- Howard K. Stern, Larry Birkhead and Smith's mother, Virgie Arthur -- and, by Bloom's count, the 19 lawyers in the courtroom.

    "It's a grieving process," Seidlin continued. "All of us are suffering and feeling the weight of it." He urged everyone to "bond" and be nice.

    Legal observers say issues involving the child's custody and paternity are irrelevant to the central issue before Seidlin -- Smith's burial. (Watch the judge ask a witness to write the baby's name on a board Video)

    Seidlin, a balding, deeply tanned former New York cabbie, has been on the bench for 29 years. He presides over family and probate matters. He talks about calling upon well-heeled pals to provide their private jets to shuttle witnesses and perhaps carry Smith's corpse to its final resting place on a moment's notice.

    He has said he likes to put people in his courtroom at ease so they can come together on matters of life and death.

    And so, he calls one of Arthur's lawyers "Texas," and speaks repeatedly about preserving the beauty and dignity of Smith's corpse while looking out for the best interests of her infant daughter, Dannielynn.

    But it is Seidlin's sheer volume of words that seems to cause the most discomfort.

    "I would say simply that this judge is too long-winded and too focused on making speeches about himself," Bloom said. "The judicial monologue about his background, it starts to wear thin. I'd say it was wearing thin on Day One."

    Decision due Friday

    The judge has said he will decide Friday whether Smith should be buried in the Bahamas by Stern, her Los Angeles, California-based lawyer-turned-boyfriend, or in Texas by Arthur, a former police officer who has been estranged from her daughter for 10 years.

    Toobin called the hearings "a total waste of time" in deciding what should be a fairly straightforward matter: who is the next of kin and what were Anna Nicole Smith's wishes.

    The decision assumed new urgency late Tuesday, when Medical Examiner Joshua A. Perper called Seidlin on the bench to say Smith's embalmed corpse has begun to deteriorate at the county morgue. Seidlin put Perper on speaker phone, playing the call in open court.

    "If the body is to be viewed, it must be done this week, Saturday or before," Perper said. "If it is next week, they cannot guarantee that there won't be changes to affect the deceased, especially to her face."

    "The most important thing is there is a body that is decomposing, " Bloom said. "There is a baby who doesn't have a father and the hearing is dragging on."

    "Again, as with any other matter in the legal system, especially involving Anna Nicole Smith, it's just taking longer than it should," Toobin said.

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