Sunday, March 15, 2015

Special Feature: An Interview with the Hon. Susan C. Bucklew

By Michael S. Hooker

Q. Judge, there are probably those who have appeared before you who are not at all familiar with your background. Can you tell us a little about where you grew up and went to school?

A. Yes. I grew up in Tampa. I was actually born in Seminole Heights and raised on Clifton Street. I went to public schools: Seminole Elementary, Sligh Junior High, and Hillsborough High School. I graduated from Hillsborough in 1960.

Q. Where did you go to college?

A. Went to Florida State. 

Q. After graduating from college, I understand that you actually taught school.

A. I taught for a total of five years. I was an English major and enjoyed the English classes. I love to read. Always have. When I got to be a senior, my parents said to me, “Now, what are you going to do when you graduate?” And that was a valid concern because I wasn’t really sure what I would do with an English degree. So I took enough education courses to be able to teach. I came back to Tampa the last semester of my senior year and interned at Plant High School and was then offered a job at Plant High School. 

Q. Any traits that you mastered in the classroom that carry over to the bench?

A. Patience is probably the biggest thing I learned from teaching.

Q. As the first female county court judge and first female circuit court judge here in Hillsborough County, what challenges did you face trailblazing the way for women in the judiciary locally?

A. When I was appointed in 1982, Hillsborough County had nine county judges, and I was the only woman. In 1986, I was appointed circuit judge, the only woman out of about 22 circuit judges. I look back at both with fondness; I was never uncomfortable. I might have been treated differently in some ways, but I do not recall feeling discriminated against because I was a female. Overall, it was a smooth transition. 

Q. Is it gratifying now for you to see women following in your footsteps and being appointed or elected to the bench?

A. Absolutely. When I graduated from law school, I went to work for Jim Walter Corporation and was lucky to have a boss who became a mentor ― Jim Kynes. I remember when I was appointed to the county court, among the pieces of advice he gave me ― because he was good at giving advice ― was, “You better not screw up because if you screw up, there won’t be another female judge for a long time.” There still wasn’t another female judge for quite a while, but I don’t think it was because I screwed up. 

Q. You served in the state court system for about 10 years and then were appointed by President Clinton to the federal district court bench in 1993. Having served extensively on both the state and federal bench, in terms of the day-to-day administration of cases, what would you say are the biggest differences?

A. I have a friend who describes the differences in the federal court and the state court like this: Walking into a state court is like walking into a circus. For example, in criminal court, at any one time, you may have a number of public defenders and defense attorneys, a number of prosecutors, spectators, and many defendants both in and out of custody. The judge is the ringmaster. Whereas, when you come to federal court, it’s like walking into a library. It is quiet and a little intimidating. There might be two attorneys, perhaps the parties or a defendant and the judge.  I think the circus and the library is a pretty good comparison.

Q. Probably thousands of lawyers have appeared before you during your 30-plus years on the bench. What two or three traits do the very best lawyers all seem to share?

A. I think the best lawyers are prepared, and when I say prepared, that’s not just coming to court and making an oral presentation. That means spending the time necessary to answer the judge’s questions or anything opposing counsel might bring up. Also, the best lawyers are professional. They treat opposing counsel well, treat the judge well, and treat the courtroom personnel well. 

Q. What are some of the difficulties facing the judiciary that you wished lawyers who appear before you better understood? 

A. That we have more than your case. Sometimes I have a case where the lawyers inundate you with paper. By that I mean the filings are excessive and require an enormous amount of judicial time. So I think that lawyers need to understand that their case is one among many cases, and if you really want the judge to read what you have given them, then you cannot bury them with paper. 

Q. You were a founding member and past president of the Cheatwood Inn of Court and an organizing member of the Herbert G. Goldburg Criminal Inn of Court. Why have you given so much to the local Inns of Court? 

A. It has been an enjoyable, gratifying experience to watch the Inns of Court movement grow across the United States and in the Tampa area. It has been a fun experience for me, or I would not have stayed in for so long. The Inns of Court experience is so important for young lawyers because it gives them an opportunity to interact with experienced lawyers and judges on an informal basis, have dinner with them, play games with them, and plan programs with them. 

Q. You took senior status awhile back, yet you still seem to maintain a full-time schedule on the bench. Is there really any difference between your role now as a senior status judge versus what you were before?

A. Yes, some. It has been six years since I took senior status. For me, it has been a work in progress. In the beginning, I did the same thing that I did as an active judge, but I have gradually cut down so that now I take a partial civil caseload and a full criminal caseload. I probably should cut down more than I have, but I haven’t because I still enjoy it. I still enjoy trying cases. I still enjoy the intellectual process. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here. 

Q. Judge, I understand that you love sports. What is your favorite sport?

A. (Laughs) Well, it depends on the season. Recently, I have been watching a lot of football.  Basketball season has started now so now I’m watching a lot of basketball. And in baseball season, I watch the Rays and, of course, Jesuit and little league baseball where my grandsons play. So, yes, I am a big sports fan. 

Q. You mentioned earlier that you love to read as well. What’s the last book that you read that you really enjoyed?

A. I just finished “Big Little Lies,” which is just a fun book. But I also read a lot of fantasy fiction like the “Game of Thrones” series or the “Hunger Games” series. I made myself a promise that I would try to read more nonfiction books. I really like books that I can lose myself in. I have friends who make fun of me because I read so much fantasy fiction, but I enjoy it. What can I say?

Q. I also understand that you love to travel. Any particular trips or vacations that stand out?

A. I just got back from South Africa. It is a very large, diverse, and interesting country. I went on an incredible safari at a game preserve, but the food and wine were also wonderful.

Q. During your long and distinguished career, can you single out any particular aspect that you found to be most fulfilling or gratifying?

A. I guess the opportunity as a federal judge to work with law clerks, to watch them grow and to share their excitement in the law. Sometimes I think we forget how fortunate we are to have such an interesting profession. 

Q. You’re obviously nowhere near being finished yet, but how would you like to be remembered for your time on the bench?

A. As fair, as approachable, as someone who did not take myself too seriously, and as a judge who you and other lawyers as well as my family and friends could be proud of.