Monday, August 25, 2014

Special Feature: An Interview With The Hon. Mary Stenson Scriven

By Michael S. Hooker

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

Q. Your Honor, tell us about your background. Where did you grow up?

A. I was born in Atlanta, Ga., but grew up in Macon. My dad was a minister and pastored several churches in Macon over the course of his career, 44 years at St. Luke Baptist Church, and my mother was a nurse at the local hospital, first as a registered nurse on the floor and then as head of the education department for the school of nursing that was an arm of the hospital. I was educated in the public schools in Macon. 

Q. Any particular challenges growing up as a “preacher’s daughter”?

A. Not really. More challenges external to my family than by my family. People had expectations that the “preacher’s daughter” would behave in a certain way. Dad never put those kind of restrictions on our behavior other than that he and my mom led by example and took us to church several times every Sunday and every Wednesday. My mom likes to joke that her kids were drugged. “Drug to church at every opportunity.” So we really didn’t have much time to get in trouble.

Q. Did you have any idea what you wanted to do when you grew up?

A. I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. I love teaching. My mother was an educator, and I thought I was suited for teaching. I taught high school right after I graduated college. I graduated a semester early, and one of my high school teachers then was having a baby. So she took the semester off, and I finished her high school English classes for the rest of the year. I had my fill of teaching after half a year.

Q. Actually, you did a lot more teaching. I noticed in your bio that you taught at Stetson College of Law in ’96 and ’97, you were a former faculty member at the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, serving as a guest faculty member in the Master’s Program for Trial Advocacy at Nottingham Law Institute in England!

A. (Laughs) Well, I guess I didn’t give up the teaching bug. I love teaching. My favorite job was being a law school professor at Stetson. I think that in the context of the idealistic American law student, it’s just a great place to educate. People are open to education; they challenge the norms; you can engage with students; they really want to get a good grade so they work hard; and I really enjoyed it. In fact, when I went once with my son to school, I was there for half a day after having taught a class and gone to lunch, and he asked, “Momma, when are you going to start working?” and I said, “This is my job!”

Q. Your bio says that you are an honors graduate at Duke and obtained a law degree with high honors from Florida State. What was your undergraduate major?

A. Political science and religion. I had the notion, at least by my freshman year in college, that I was going to go into law. I took a survey of constitutional law seminar and picked up the law bug. In my junior year at Duke, I served as the chief judge on the Student Judiciary Council. We considered honors violations, such as plagiarism, or even some misdemeanor violations. I gradually moved into an interest in the law from there.

Q. And I understand that you practiced law for a decade or so at Carlton Fields with an emphasis in commercial litigation and trade regulation. What kind of cases did you handle?

A. My principal practice was commercial litigation. When I started practicing, the firm represented the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Thus, by happenstance, my practice was almost exclusively federal. Even so, it was a broad-based practice to include commercial litigation over loans, legal malpractice, accountant malpractice, director malpractice. These weren’t the typical federal cases so to speak, but because the government was the plaintiff, all of the cases were litigated and tried in the federal court. That became the source of my introduction to federal court, where I have remained throughout my career. 

Q. Now, you were a magistrate judge for about 10 years, and obviously you’ve been a federal district judge since 2008, so you have served on two different federal benches. What would you say are the biggest differences between the magistrate and the district benches?

A. I think that typically the work as magistrate judge is somewhat more controlled in the sense that you typically know what your day will look like, except in duty week when you don’t know what may come your way. But here in the Middle District, it tends to be more dynamic; because of the number of consents in our district, magistrate judges’ duties tend to run the gamut. The principal difference in district judge work is that a lot of what I do involves sentencing and trying of criminal cases, and it’s both the heavy heart work and heavy trial work in terms of work on the bench. It probably isn’t the heaviest cerebral work. That work is the desk work on the complicated civil cases.

Q. I know that judges typically don’t like to see lawyers embroiled in discovery disputes. But other than discovery disputes, what kind of issues are brought to you on a routine basis that you think lawyers ought to resolve on their own?

A. I don’t abhor discovery disputes like some people say they do. I think one of the functions of the court is to resolve discovery disputes ― real, live, substantive discovery disputes ― such as “Am I entitled to the assertion of the privilege over this set of documents?” and “Does the burden of producing this document or this set of documents outweigh its relevance such that my obligation to produce is eliminated or should the cost be shifted?” I think those are kinds of things judges are supposed to involve themselves in. The timing of and location of depositions, and whether to grant someone an extension of time because of extenuating circumstances that are not repeat extenuating circumstances, are the kinds of things, I think, professional, civil-minded lawyers ought to be able to work out, without resorting to the court. 

Q. What do you see as the key issues in the Middle District of Florida over the next several years?

A. Funding and resources. I think we are statistically one of the fastest growing districts in the country. At least, historically we have been. I haven’t looked at the data in the last couple of weeks, but as our population grows and business grows, litigation ensues and crimes get committed, and so properly funding the federal courts is paramount and should be something the lawyers are really concerned about. I think that lawyers have to be mindful that if they want to continue to have high-minded litigation brought in the courts in the U.S. as opposed to somewhere else or brought in some alternative forum, they need to really be concerned about and work to ensure that the court is fully funded so that we can operate as a court should. 

Q. I know you’re aware of the tremendous push recently by The Florida Bar under the leadership of Eugene Pettis to increase diversity on the state bench. Why is diversity in the judiciary so important?

A. Diversity in the judiciary is important because when people come to court they want to believe that the court is even-minded, and although I don’t know of a judge who looks at a case differently because of his or her gender or race, I think that when people look at the court, they tend to believe it is more fair if it reflects the community that it is supposed to serve. So I believe it provides some sense of integrity to the process as it is viewed from external sources. Then just fundamentally, people bring their varying backgrounds (former prosecutors, defense lawyers, commercial litigators, etc.) to litigation and to dispute resolution, and those varying backgrounds are applied to cases, and I think you want to have people with broad-based backgrounds to do that. 

Q. Judge, you’ve probably sentenced hundreds of defendants on drug charges. If you could say one thing to a young person who was dabbling with the idea of using or possessing drugs, what would it be?

A. Don’t. There is no “little amount” of addiction. Addiction feeds on itself, and because no one knows their propensity to become addicted to so-called recreational drugs, taking them is no different than playing Russian roulette. There may be a person who is resistant to the effects of cocaine, and you may be that person or you may not be that person. If you imbibe and you get addicted, then it feeds on itself, and you’ll do anything to get the drugs. You’ll do anything to keep the high, and then it becomes your way of life. The risks are so tremendously high and the likelihood of your being able to avoid the horrible outcome is so tremendously low that it’s just not worth it. So in the opposite of the Nike mantra, “Just Don’t Do It!”

Q. The practice of law in the federal arena is particularly dependent on the written word. In terms of effective written advocacy, do you have any particular advice you would give to lawyers?

A. The old saying “less is more” cannot be overstated in the context of written advocacy. I think people who have the ability to encapsulate their thoughts in as little space as possible on a page have the greatest opportunity to communicate those thoughts to the court. If you learn to do that and do it consistently, you will see much better results consistently for your clients than a person who writes a 30-page brief and then files a motion for an extension of 10 additional pages because they just have 10 additional pages worth to say. If you can put it in 10 pages or less, you have a true talent for written advocacy. 

Q. You are married to a prominent local lawyer, Lanse Scriven. Does being married to a lawyer affect your role on the bench?

A. It does. It keeps me grounded in the practice of law, and I think as a judge one can tend over time to forget what it really feels like to practice law. It makes it less likely that I’ll just flippantly deny requests for extensions of time for reasons that are properly articulated to be important, even if they are personal. It makes it more important to me to really allow people to be heard on all sides of an issue. I think the constant reminder that there are litigants who are out there working on important, highly contested issues and they are spending enormous resources doing it and having that sort of paramount in my mind on a daily basis keeps me grounded and aware of how important it is for a judge to be tempered in his or her judgment and to allow everybody to be heard.

Q. Judge, I understand from a particularly reliable source that you are an exceptional chef. What are your signature dishes?

A. Chicken Captiva, a dish of chicken, fresh shrimp, bacon, and a Dijon cream sauce topped with mozzarella cheese, which I stole from a lawyer named David Snyder, so I have to give attribution. It has become our family’s favorite. I love fresh seafood dishes like Florida grouper. I am a German chocolate cake queen. I would say quite confidently no one has had a better German chocolate cake than mine, ever! And my husband’s favorite probably is my New York-style cherry cheesecake.

Q. And finally, on a sad note, I understand that your father, who you already mentioned today, passed away last December. What one attribute of his are you most proud of?

A. There are so many attributes my dad had, it’s hard to pin down one, but what comes to mind first is the famous Rudyard Kipling verse: “If you can walk among kings and not lose the common touch. ...” My dad was very well educated. He was biblically a genius in the sense that he could identify a verse in the Bible that could address any given concern on any given day, but he didn’t lord the Bible over people or lord his religious education over his parishioners or the people he encountered. And everyone considered him to be a friend, and he was able to maintain that persona. I think in the context of what we do as judges for a living, just being able to stay normal and remember that we put our pants on one leg at a time like everybody else is important to avoiding “robeitis,” as I think it used to be called back in the ’90s, and it’s something that I try to aspire to as a judge. 

Q. If you had it to do all over again, would you still be a judge?

A. Absolutely, I would. I love the work. It is rarely ever boring. I mean, there are some things that I do that aren’t particularly scintillating, but the work is almost always intellectually stimulating. I get to work with the brightest young minds in the country. When I hire law clerks, I get 100 to 200 applications for every job, and I get to choose the best, the brightest to work with. I still get to teach because those become my students. I am also a law junkie. I can do this work all day. I can go home and watch “Law and Order” and “Judge Judy” and then I can read a John Grisham novel and go to sleep. It’s what I really love and feel called to do. So, I would, if I could start all over again and knew I would wind up in the same place. There are things about my life I would change, obviously ― I would try to take better care of my health, I would travel more with my husband, I would spend more time with my children when they were smaller and all of that. But ultimately I would hope to be in the same place that I am today. My vocation is truly my avocation.