Thursday, September 17, 2015

Special Feature: Off the Record with the Hon. Charlene E. Honeywell

By Michael S. Hooker

The following is an edited excerpt of an interview with the Hon. Charlene E. Honeywell, United States District Court, , Tampa Division.  

Q:    Can you tell us a little about your background?

A:    I am a native Floridian; I was born and raised in Broward County, Florida. I attended the public schools in Pompano Beach. … I went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., on a full academic scholarship. I knew that I wanted to go to law school, and I knew that I would most likely end up practicing law here in Florida, so I came back to Florida to attend the University of Florida. I received a full fellowship to attend the University of Florida. …

    I did well in school, in part, because I grew up in a single-family household.  I am an only child. My parents divorced when I was young, and my mother was an educator; she was really strict about education. So I was one of those kids who always made straight A’s. Although I knew my mother would send me to college, I didn’t know if she could afford to send me to a school that I would want to attend. And so my goal was to get a scholarship to attend college, and that’s what I did. 

Q:    I understand that you were bussed to another school in an effort to integrate schools in your area. What impact did that have on your later life and perhaps your career?

A:    Well, it caused me to pay more attention to the legal profession. I started out attending an all-black school because the schools were segregated at that time, and that was first grade through sixth grade. From there, I went to the black high school, which was seventh through 12th. At the end of my seventh-grade year, the school board began to implement plans for desegregation. They closed the black high school I attended and bussed all of us over to what was and remained a predominantly white school. The first year was chaotic and tumultuous. Initially, kids threw rocks at the busses, and police officers manned the hallways at different times. When times got really bad, we even had police officers with dogs in the hallways. But the chaos didn’t last for a long period of time. It was the initial resistance to black students and white students going to school together. After a while, everyone was fine.  Everybody got along. We sat in classes together, we interacted together, played on sports teams together; it was great. ... As a result of the impact of integration, I became more aware, more interested in the legal process. I didn’t have any role models who were judges, had never been in a courtroom, but I would hear news about how the federal courts had ruled “x, y, or z” as it related to desegregation and the fact that “separate but equal” was no longer the law of the land and that these schools needed to be integrated.  

Q:    So that experience spurred your interest in the law?

A:    It absolutely spurred my interest in the law, along with suggestions from teachers. At that time, “Perry Mason” was one of my favorite television shows.

Q:    You were a public defender for a number of years, then an assistant city attorney for the City of Tampa, and a shareholder in a large commercial law firm locally. Which of those non-judicial career practice experiences did you enjoy the most?

A:    I had tremendous training, appellate, and trial court experience as an assistant public defender. But I enjoyed handling civil matters much better than criminal matters, and still do. As a federal judge, I preside over criminal and civil proceedings. I enjoy the civil proceedings more, perhaps because of the variety, novelty, and complexity of some of the issues presented in them. However, as I tell many of the criminal defendants appearing before me, sentencing is the toughest part of my job. I don’t take it lightly because I am making decisions that will impact people’s liberty and lives forever. These decisions are extremely tough.  So as a practitioner, I enjoyed most my time at the city attorney’s office and Hill Ward. 

Q:    Governor Lawton Chiles appointed you as a county court judge in 1994, Governor Jeb Bush appointed you as a circuit court judge in 2000, and President Barack Obama nominated you to the federal bench in 2009. How gratifying was it to have received such strong bipartisan support?

A:    It was tremendously gratifying; as judges, we are nonpartisan decision-makers. We don’t rule based upon a person’s political affiliations, their community status, or their socioeconomic status. None of those things are important to us. When you go before a tribunal and you demonstrate that you have cross-support from Republicans and Democrats, it’s symbolic of the kind of person you have been or the life you have lived. I really try to make sure that all individuals appearing before me feel that they have received fair and just treatment regardless of the outcome of the case or their position in society. 

Q:    You tell young people to be prepared for setbacks while pursuing their dreams, you know, “Get back up and keep on going!” Is that message a product of what you’ve experienced?

A:    Absolutely, and I do preach that message. … That is a part of my experience. As you know, when I was appointed to the state court bench in June 1994, I lost the judicial election that September, and that was a major setback. I went to law school because I wanted to be a judge, not because I wanted to be a lawyer. It was always a part of my plan to at some point start applying for or run for the judiciary, whichever opportunity first presented itself. And so once I received the appointment, to lose was devastating. In retrospect, I look back now and think about what was the purpose for that experience, and I can’t say that I know the purpose. It was a part of the plan for my life from which I learned, grew, and became a better person. As a result, I can share that experience and encourage others.  

Q:    Judge, you could be considered a trailblazer; for instance, you were the first African-American female partner at your prior law firm. You are also one of only a handful of African-American female federal district court judges in Florida. What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

A:    My advice would be to plan, prepare, to set goals, and to not give up. I just can’t emphasize that enough. So many people give up after one or two tries, particularly as it relates to becoming a judge. The first step is getting yourself ready, being prepared, and you do that by getting the experience needed to be a judge. It’s important to work in the community, legal and Hillsborough County; you especially want the legal community to know you. If you’ve prepared yourself, if you’ve been involved, then you start applying and you continue to apply or run for a judgeship. 

Q:    The current Florida Bar president has opined that our profession is at a crossroads ― with the influx of so many new lawyers, increased competition from nontraditional providers of legal services, and technological changes in the way we practice law. Any thoughts on that?

A:    I agree with the Florida Bar president’s position on that. … The practice of law has changed tremendously from what it was when I started practicing in 1982. Ultimately, however, lawyers should still have as their number one goal and focus, the zealous representation of their clients. I have been surprised on more than one occasion by the quality of the written filings I’ve had to review in various cases. It has caused me to wonder if attorneys are practicing law for the wrong reasons. There was a time when the practice of law was an honored profession and lawyers were held in high regard. Lawyers have the best opportunity, perhaps aside from doctors, to help people ― doctors help people who are sick; lawyers help people who are injured or have been wronged.  Lawyers should always put forth their best effort in the representation of their clients. Some lawyers have forgotten to do this.

Q:    Is there anything that you’d like to see changed about the way lawyers who come before you conduct themselves?

A:    I would like for them to remember that they should always be prepared. As you know, in the Middle District, we don’t conduct hearings on many matters. If I schedule a hearing, I expect the lawyers to be prepared. Additionally, lawyers are welcome to use the electronics in the courtroom to aid in the presentation of their arguments.

Q:     Switching topics, can you tell us something about your family and your children?

A:    My daughter, who is 19, just finished her freshman year in college, where she’s pursuing a degree in industrial engineering; my son, who is 22, just graduated from college with a degree in broadcast journalism and a minor in marketing. 

Q:    How have you balanced the demands of family and career life?

A:    It’s been difficult, but I had the support of family and close friends. I am a master at multitasking and delegating. It’s much easier now because my children don’t require as much guidance.

Q:    What do you like to do to relax and have fun?

A:    I want to travel abroad more. My bucket list includes trips to Italy, an African safari, the south of France, and others.

Q:    You mentioned earlier that you thought it was important to be involved in the community. What organizations are you involved in?

A:    I am in two Inns of Court: the Cheatwood Inn of Court and the Smith Litigation Inn of Court. I am also a member of the Board of Trustees for the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law. Also, I am a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the Tampa Alumnae Chapter, as well as the Tampa Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, a service organization. I am an associate member of Jack and Jill of America, the Greater Tampa chapter, and a member of the Executive Board of the Howard University Alumni Club.  

Q:    Obviously, you have a number of years left on the bench, but when it’s all said and done, how do you want to be remembered?

A:    I’d most like to be remembered as a judge who was fair, and then as a judge who was always prepared. I want the lawyers and parties to know that when they come before me, I’m going to be prepared, and I want them to leave believing that they received a fair proceeding and an opportunity to be heard, regardless of the outcome.