Thursday, December 4, 2014

Special Feature: Parting Words Of Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr.

By David A. Rowland

The Final Jeopardy!® clue:


If your Final Jeopardy! ® answer is “Who is Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr.?” then you win the grand prize.

Appointed to the county bench in 1983 and to the circuit bench the following year, Judge Menendez was unanimously elected as chief judge in 2001 and has served in this leadership position ever since. Judge Menendez is a past recipient of the Robert W. Patton Outstanding Jurist Award, served as past chair of the Conference of Circuit Judges of Florida, and is past chair of several Florida Bar committees. While with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he was active in the Federal Bar Association, serving as vice president of the Jacksonville chapter and president of the Tampa Bay chapter. A big proponent of legal education and judicial education, he served several years on the faculty of the Florida Judicial College, the Prosecutor/Public Defender Trial Training Program at the University of Florida College of Law, and The Florida Bar Advanced Civil Trial Advocacy Program. Since becoming chief judge, he has served as chair of this circuit’s Professionalism Committee. Judge Menendez is also an active member of the J. Clifford Cheatwood American Inn of Court and the Herbert G. Goldberg-Ronald K. Cacciatore Criminal Law American Inn of Court.

In light of Chief Judge Menendez’s retirement in December, and with apologies to Tom Elligett for borrowing his interview-style approach to getting answers readers of the Lawyer magazine want to know, Judge Menendez good-naturedly agreed to the following interview with David Rowland, general counsel of the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit.  

You have seen many changes in the legal profession during your more than 30 years on the bench. What do you think is the most profound change in the courts since you became chief judge?

There are two things that stand out as sea changes to the courts during my tenure as chief judge. First and foremost was our undergoing a big shift in how our court system was to be funded with the passage of what was then called Revision Seven to Article Five of our Florida Constitution. Revision Seven reallocated the responsibility for funding of the state court system, placing a majority of that on the state of Florida. Prior to then, we received a majority of our funding from the 67 counties. When considering implementing legislation, the Legislature began the process of designing what the court system would consist of in the future. Consequently, there was a great deal of effort focused on convincing them to include, for example, positions such as court counsel. We pushed for a court system model in which we would have certain elements included. We wanted court administration, due process positions (court reporters and interpreters), court counsel, staff attorneys, magistrates, and hearing officers – a myriad of positions that were essential to providing the public with a court system they deserved. We were largely very successful.

Then, of course, we had the problem of funding the court system. Adequately funding of the court system has been a bit of a struggle through the years, especially during the most recent economic setback. We all suffered through it just like everybody else in the state and the country.

The next biggest area of change is what we are currently experiencing with our court system evolving into the electronic era – the advent of mandatory e-filing, leading ultimately to no paper court files.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the courts in the next five to 10 years?

Unfortunately, once again, funding appears to be the key issue. It seems like we have to re-educate the Legislature every year as to what we do, why we do it, and why we need the funding. In large part, this is because of the term limits that we have with our Legislature. There is not much institutional memory up there in Tallahassee. But getting past that, I believe we’re going to be having some issues in the future with continued increased filings. We haven’t yet finished dealing with the foreclosure mess for example; we have a backlog of cases there. Processing cases in a timely manner so that the public is able to access the courts is extremely important. We’re also going to have to learn to deal with the electronic age a little bit better.

What is your best advice for young lawyers just starting their careers in today’s legal culture?

I would advise young lawyers to seek out a mentor, someone who has some experience, who’s respected. Watch experienced lawyers perform the trade. Try to spend as much time as you can learning. Also, don’t shortchange your clients. Communicate with them. Return their phone calls. Avoid the mistake of not being answerable to your clients. Always seek to learn, to engage. Join the HCBA. Meet others in the profession; keep it collegial. It is a collegial profession; it is supposed to be. Avoid getting pulled into the mud as is sometimes seen with some of our lawyers who for some reason feel like it is a trial by ambush, a war with hatchets and axes. It shouldn’t be that way. It has always been a collegial profession, and we should all strive to maintain that.

I know you have lots of memorable stories of your time on the bench and have handled thousands of cases during your judicial career. What is one of your fondest memories of your time on the bench?

I have many fond memories, and most of them deal with the investiture ceremonies for new judges. They are always very interesting, and I always learn something I did not know about a new colleague each time. These ceremonies are also a lot of fun. I’ve had the opportunity to actually preside over 40 investiture ceremonies of new judges since I became chief judge, and I attended many others before then. Every single one has been a wonderful experience.

What do you think was the most impactful decision you made while on the bench?

Every decision that a judge makes has a significant impact on the litigants, if nobody else. Going beyond that, some decisions are impactful because of the impact they may have on the community as a whole or because of some precedential value. Although there may be a number of decisions that fit into that category, two come to mind as I sit here talking with you.

One is the case involving the city of Tampa’s human rights ordinance. In the 1990s, the city had passed a human rights ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of, among other things, sexual orientation. Subsequently, there was a petition circulating that, with enough signatures, would place on the ballot a referendum repealing that portion of the ordinance that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. A lawsuit was commenced seeking removal of the referendum from the ballot, and I was assigned the case. And I made the decision to remove the referendum from the ballot because the law required that the wording on the ballot referendum be the exact same language as that used in the petition for obtaining signatures for the referendum. And there were some slight differences in the language. That decision was affirmed on appeal. The matter was not voted on, and the ordinance was never again attempted to be repealed.

Another case that comes to mind is one that dealt with child support enforcement orders. One of the parents had funds in a city firefighters and police union pension. An argument was made that the pension fund was exempt from garnishment because the fund was passed by special law and the special law exempted the pension fund from garnishment. I found, contrary to what other judges across the state had found, that the retirement benefits in pension funds were subject to garnishment because the general law enacted after the special law specifically included pension funds in the definition of “income.” The pension fund board of trustees appealed to the Second DCA, which reversed the decision, but the appellate court certified a question of great public importance to the Florida Supreme Court. The Florida Supreme Court noted that the trial court’s finding – that when a special law and a subsequent general law conflict, the latest expression of legislative intent controls – was correct, and the Second DCA was wrong. This was another impactful decision if for no other reason it provides me the opportunity to occasionally but good-naturedly harass my colleagues at the Second DCA.

During your first few months as chief judge, I recall you saying that you had not realized the scope of responsibilities of the chief judge. What are people’s biggest misperceptions about the chief judge position?

Some people have a misunderstanding that a chief judge is like the “chief” of judges and is akin to an appellate court. These folks believe that the chief judge is empowered to change a decision of a trial judge with the stroke of a pen. Thankfully, that of course, is not the case. A chief judge does have the privilege of developing relationships with our county commissioners, state legislators, state attorney, public defender, sheriff, and the clerk of court with the goal of creating the best court system in the state! But we all know that the real function of the chief judge is to sit at the head table at Bar luncheons!

The Tampa Bay area has grown tremendously during your judicial career. Our area offers a variety of activities, events, and eateries. Tell us what you like to do in your free time.

I enjoy reading novels and the daily newspapers, and on occasion I watch a little television. My favorite show, Breaking Bad, recently ended. I thought it was one of the greatest shows ever on TV. I have not gotten into another series yet, but people tell me I should watch The Wire. Because of the wonderful weather we have, I also enjoy going out for a little jog or a walk periodically during the week to get the juices flowing. Recently I took some kayaking lessons and enjoy that when there is good weather. I also enjoy going out and catching a Rays game on occasion. I haven’t played golf in years, but maybe I’ll see if I can find my clubs and take that up again. There are a whole slew of restaurants that are wonderful in the area, but unfortunately one of my favorite ones just closed down, that being CDB’s Southside on Westshore. Hopefully at some point Pat Iacovella will relocate. And although not necessarily in the Tampa Bay area, I enjoy traveling about two hours up the road to Gainesville to enjoy intercollegiate sporting activities.

Speaking of Gainesville, your double-degree Gator background is well known, having graduated from the University of Florida in 1969 and UF’s College of Law in 1972. What many people probably do not realize is the extent to which your office is furnished with virtually every type of Gator memorabilia that exists. Where are you going to display all of these memorabilia upon your retirement?
Well, I don’t think I have all that much paraphernalia in here. But the big problem will be finding a location. Maybe I’ll have an auction or take them up to Gainesville and sell them out of the back of my truck at a Gator game. I think I’ll be allowed to keep some of the stuff in the house but not all. I’ll have to negotiate that.

After more than three decades on the bench, what are your retirement plans?

Three decades? Wow! My retirement plans are still a work in progress. I’d like to travel some, maybe do some teaching. I serve on some charitable boards and would like to continue with that and perhaps do some other volunteer work. I may try my hand at mediation and arbitration and maybe even practice some law. One thing I will not do is try to run a marathon! I will stick to an occasional 5K race! And I am contemplating writing a book exposing all the secrets of our court counsel!

[The author is convinced that our soon-to-be-former chief judge would be more concerned about this author contemplating writing a book concerning the judge’s secrets than vice versa!]