Friday, July 11, 2014

Judge Kovachevich: Off the Record

By Michael S. Hooker

The following is an edited excerpt of an interview with the Hon. Elizabeth A. Kovachevich, United States District Court Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, conducted by Michael S. Hooker.

Q. Judge, I understand that you are a native of Illinois. How did you end up in Florida?

A. On my 13th birthday in 1949, December 14, my family moved to Florida because my father had pneumonia two winters’ previously and his good friend, a doctor, told him he would never survive another winter in Illinois. So, a big decision: The family moved to Florida in 1949.

Q. I understand that when you were growing up, your family had some involvement in the theater business. Is that right?

A. That’s correct. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was a coal miner, as was my other grandfather. My mother’s father saved up his money, and he was able to get into the saloon business. He got a franchise for Schlitz beer, and he went from that. He saved his money, and this was at a time when silent movies were just the “in thing” for people for entertainment. He had an opportunity to get into that, to get money from the bank because he had a good reputation for having developed into a good businessman. He bought a theater that had been used as an opera theater and had 1,700 seats, and he started putting in talking movies. To run the business ― to show you the confidence that the father had in the daughter, his oldest child ― my mother quit school in the ninth grade and went in and managed the theater. She had two brothers, but her father said, “No, they don’t know what they’re doing; you do.” She managed that theater for 36 years.

Q. Did you ever work there?

A. I worked there after school. I was taking tickets, ushering, up in the projection room, repairing the film, lining up and organizing the film to take to the railway station. I’d go with my uncle who would drive the car, but I’m making sure that it was all organized. I would bring my school books to the theater, and I’d be working there at night doing my homework.

Q. Are you still a fan of classic cinema today?

A. Well, let us just say, the classic cinema, yes. Turner Classic Movies, yes. Some of this other now, no.

Q. I know you had a very stellar academic career. You went to St. Petersburg Junior College, and you graduated very high in your class as well at the University of Miami.

A. Right. Well, I was fortunate to go to St. Paul’s High School in St. Petersburg where the nuns, who came from Allegheny, New York, brought with them the New York State Board of Regents exams. This is important because New York state, at that time ― this was in the 1950s ― was the best school system in the United States, and here we are, kids at this little high school in St. Petersburg, Florida, getting these New York state exams! Those were the exams that we took. We even had students who came from Tampa to go to St. Paul’s school. When I graduated valedictorian from high school, I went to St. Petersburg Junior College to save my money to go to the University of Miami. I graduated valedictorian from St. Petersburg J.C. and went down to Miami, and I graduated first in my class of business administration. There were about 224 students in that class. I attribute all of my success to the foundation that I got from those nuns and taking those exams. When we started college, all of us, we were about a year ahead of everybody else.

Q. You then went to Stetson College of Law, and you graduated in 1961?

A. Yes, I tied for second in the class, and then I worked for two people: John DiVito, who became the attorney for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, and, for Roy Speer, who was one of the two people who founded Home Shopping Network.

Q. You were in private practice for about 12 years?

A. Eleven or 12 years, something like that.

Q. Do any of the cases that you handled as a private practitioner stand out?

A. Well, there’s one that has to. That was the General Motors case. It brought national attention here to Clearwater, Florida, because Bob Nunez, who was a former assistant United States attorney and was in private practice, was the main attorney in that case. I was co-counsel. It was really an enormous experience. It was the biggest trial that had been held in this area at that time.

Q. And what was the subject matter of that trial?

A. It was the Corvair vehicle. … General Motors was sued for the design of the Corvair, and the Firestone tire company was sued for its product performance, and it was a mammoth trial.

Q. Wasn’t that at the time of the “Unsafe at Any Speed” allegations by Ralph Nader?

A. That’s correct. After a six-week jury trial and a deliberation, there was a defense verdict for General Motors.

Q. I understand that you were elected to the Sixth Judicial Circuit in 1972 and that you were the first female judge in that circuit?

A. First in that circuit, and to my knowledge, the first in this area because I’ve discussed this with Judge Bucklew – she was appointed in 1982, and she was the first in her circuit.

Q. Were there any barriers to entry into the judiciary back then?

A. Well, I had been a member of the St. Petersburg Bar Association for all those years and had become secretary of the St. Pete Bar, and when the opportunity for the judgeship came ― this was a brand new judgeship ― there were people that were highly supportive of me that wanted me to run for elective office, and I said if I do anything it would be for a judgeship ― something to which I had never, ever aspired. I didn’t consider myself, being honest with you, worthy to be able to offer myself for something like that. But people encouraged me, and I thought, well if you really want me to do it, I will do it, and it was a hard-fought campaign. I’ll be honest with you, the lawyers did not want a woman judge. And it was a little difficult.

Q. You’ve been on the bench for over 40 years?

A. Yes.

Q. What in your view is the most important character trait for a judge?

A. Well, I think you have to be a little bit like an umpire who is there, doing the calls. It’s a very professional setting. Everybody’s professionally doing their job. You’ve got to be able to call the balls and strikes. Make the call and walk away tough. And I think that if you have an inability to do that, then you’re going to have a lot of trouble maintaining your stability in being a judge. Now, do I think that every call I’ve made is a perfect call in retrospect? I don’t know; other people would have to judge that. I gave it the best call I had at the time.

Q. When you sentence a criminal defendant, and someone’s liberty is at stake, can you talk a little about the deliberative process that you go through?

A. The deliberative process is the very last word that I hear in that courtroom because I don’t come in there with any preconceived notions about which way I’m going to rule. … You happened to mention criminal practice, I hear what the defense attorney has to say on behalf of the defendant. I hear the prosecutor. I get whatever comment I get from probation, and then the last word comes from the defense attorney. And it’s not until I get that last word at the time of the sentencing ― whatever it is that’s being presented to me ― do I make up my mind. There’s a pre-sentence report, the statements that come in from people, you may have victims in the case, you may have people who have something important to say, the defendant may write something, the defendant … may say something, or they may do both ― they may write and then they may say something. Not until I hear the last do I make up mind …

Q. Judge, currently our country is going through some tough economic times and has been for a few years now. How do you think that has impacted the practice of law?

A. Well, here again, when I started practicing law, the lawyer’s word was his bond. I mean, that’s it! You could call a lawyer up and say: “I’ve got this I’ve got to do. Can you give me some more time on this?” “Sure.” They’d make their own little notations; I’d make mine. You didn’t have to have a paper trail. But take the current practice. Even with the local practice, you have to have a paper trail to protect everybody, to make sure that people are being civil with one another. And do I see in the local practice people who are coming in front of me, things that I find disturbing! Some of the hearings that I have experienced are greatly disturbing to me! If you don’t think that judges don’t have a score card of the people who are “problem people,” you’re wrong.

Q. Judge, what do you think of the most recent standing orders that allow attorneys now to bring cellphones and other electronic devices into the federal courthouse here in Tampa?

A. I’m going along with it, the policy … and so long as we don’t have a problem with a jury. Do I think that there is harm that could come in a given case? Some of the cases that we had years ago where taking pictures of witnesses would have been a real problem. If you tried to slip witnesses or jurors out the back way, maybe you were protecting their identity, but there is certainly no way to protect the identity of people now. You may tell people “Don’t take a picture of somebody in the courtroom,” but who’s there to police that from happening, especially if they’re in the back section. That to me is of concern.

Q. I know you were instrumental in securing funding for new federal judgeships here in the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, a few years ago. Why was that so important to you?

A. At the time that I made a speech, I had just become the chief judge in 1996. I made it in front of the Federal Bar, and I told them that we were at 1,100 cases per judge, and we were going to go to 1,300 cases per judge. … I said, “Folks, we’ve gotta do something about this.” I went to Washington, D.C., to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the Chief Judges’ Conference. I had all of these stats, and we were going nowhere with getting any judgeships. It was everybody sitting there obediently waiting for something to happen. And I told them, I said, “I can’t wait. My district’s suffering, my judges are suffering, the practice is suffering, I’m telling you right now I’m breaking ranks, and I’m going after those judgeships.” And they laughed. Well, after we got going, the Tampa Federal Bar, Fort Myers Federal Bar ― and Jacksonville and Orlando Bars on board, Congressman Young, God bless him, he helped us ― we had a whole army of people go up, including judges; he introduced us to key people of the Appropriations Committee at the time, and the key people in the Senate and other contact persons. I had the backing of Connie Mack and Bob Graham, who were the senators at the time, and they said, “You know, this is going to be hard.” I said, “I know it. I’ve got an army coming with me. I’ve got squads of people.” We went up there, and we just, we just hit it hard. It wasn’t singularly me. I was just kind of like making sure everybody was in the right place at the right time. And we collectively got those four U.S. district judgeships for the Middle District of Florida.

Q. You started the internship program at Stetson College of Law at the federal courthouse. What was your objective when you decided to start that program?

A. Michael Trentalange, a Stetson student, took the initiative and applied, and he said, “I’d like to work, you know, free of charge as an intern for you.” And I’d never had an intern. My judicial assistant encouraged me to give him an opportunity. I said, “OK, we’ll give him a try.” So that’s how the program started. That was 1989 when Michael came, and we have had over 1,000 people come through that program, before I turned it over to Judge Porcelli. Other students came from Stetson and all over the country ― Florida, Miami, Notre Dame, Cornell, California, Vanderbilt, Virginia, and even from Harvard and Yale; you name it, they came from everywhere for the summer.

Q. Judge, back a few years ago, you were instrumental in bringing a stream of U.S. Supreme Court justices to Tampa to speak at the annual Federal Bar Association Dinner. How did you pull that off?

A. Well, in 1997, I was the chief judge and I had had contact previously with Justice Thomas, and he was kind enough when I contacted him to say “yes” he would come. We had the Red Mass, at Sacred Heart, in a rain storm; Thomas came sloshing down the road to get to the church to lead us in the oath, and then he gave the speech for 900 at the Tampa Convention Center. It was a glorious day for the legal profession and for the Federal Bar. Because of that, I was able to get Scalia to come the next year, in 1998, and then Rehnquist in 1999. They each gave Federal Bar speeches. Subsequently, when I was no longer a chief judge, I was able to communicate with Justice Alito, and he said he would come in 2004.

Q. Judge, final question. If you had it to do all over again, would you still chose to be a lawyer and later a judge?

A. Well, “the judge” was just an opportunity that came and people encouraged me. I would have been an attorney, and when I had my office, I specialized in anything that came through the door, A to Z. And I actually did everything. I did admiralty, bankruptcy to zoning, all the way across the spectrum. I did a whole bunch of different work, and I think that was good for me. And I think that helped prepare me to be a judge. But I never aspired to be a judge. It’s a great honor and a privilege to be a judge, and I never forget it. And I think about it every time I put on the robe. I never forget it. It’s a privilege to do this.