Terry Sullivan, judicial assistant to nine judges, dies at 83

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

Longtime Dade judicial assistant Terry Sullivan approached a rising young assistant public defender named Stanford Blake in the mid-1970s and said:

“I can tell you’re going to be a judge one day. And I’m going to be your J.A.”

Sure enough, when Blake won election in 1994, Sullivan joined him for 15 years, calendaring his court cases, answering phones calls and warmly welcoming lawyers, judges and reporters to chambers.

Sullivan’s prediction was a testament to her impressive longevity and love for the job. For more than 47 years, she served as a judicial assistant for nine judges at Miami’s criminal courthouse before retiring in 2009.

Sullivan died Aug. 6 in Palm Bay after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 83.

Sullivan was a strong-willed institution within an institution, boasting an amazing memory of cases, deft touch with callers and lawyers and a keen eye for gripping stories, never hesitating to pass along story tips to a roster of Miami Herald reporters.

“She was a very loyal and she knew the system better than anyone,” said Blake, still a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge, now in the civil division.

Said former Miami Herald courts reporter Manny Garcia, now editor of El Nuevo Herald:

“She took a generation of Herald reporters under her wing when we all walked into the Richard Gerstein Building, clueless, and scared, covering the circus that is the courthouse,” Garcia said.

“She was a guardian angel who could get us files on deadline, tip us off to big plea deals or to hysterically funny stories. She had an editor’s mind and a reader’s eye and she loved us all. She called us her children. She often made me look like a genius with her tips.”

Sullivan began her courthouse career in April 1962. She worked mostly uninterrupted for several judges: Gene Williams, Moi J. L. Tendrich, Francis J. Christie, Alfonso Sepe, Jonathan Colby, Henry L. Oppenborn, Jr., Rosemary Jones, Kaye and Blake.

One of four siblings, Sullivan was born in Hartford, Conn., on April 23, 1930.

After her marriage, she moved to South Florida in her early 20s. Though she ultimately divorced, Sullivan stayed on in Dade, working at a local police department answering non-emergency phone calls.

Sullivan eventually joined the criminal justice system as the assistant for Williams.

“She loved Gene Williams. He was such a great person and a great mentor for her,” said her sister, Rita Amaio, 73, of Connecticut.

Back in the early 1970s, Williams handled all arraignments, and with Sullivan handling his master calender, Sullivan earned the nickname “Judge Terry.”

She cared deeply about the victims of crimes that played out in her judges’ courts. And she was very opinionated.

In 1994, after one judge dismissed her, Sullivan penned a stern letter to The Miami Herald complaining about the lack of tenure afforded state judicial assistants.

“The Dade County court system has been my life for so many years, and my intentions were to continue to give it my all. Suddenly, my career is over,” she wrote. “However, my belief in the justice system shall not waiver. I believe in due process with justice, fairness, and equality for all.”

Soon after, Sullivan caught on with Judge Blake, who went on to become the chief administrative judge for the criminal division.

She had a soft side, never hesitating to hand out sweets to lawyers or reporters visiting chambers. She taught Judge Kaye how to master crossword puzzles.

She carefully clipped news articles of Blake’s trials and fashioned them into a scrapbook. She was also known for her love of pigs — for decades, lawyers filled chambers with ceramic and plastic figurines, which she later donated to charity.

And it was not uncommon for her to write postcards or letters from her beloved train trips. Sullivan, who disliked flying, would take sleeper-car train trips touring across the United States and Canada.

“She was always accommodating and helpful to the lawyers in scheduling, and she loved to watch trials,” said Miami defense law Bruce Fleisher. “She loved the drama of trials.”

Sullivan retired to Palm Bay in October 2009, but stayed busy with volunteer work. She answered phones at the local police department and worked at a hospital gift shop until she was diagnosed with cancer in June.

She is survived by her sister, Rita, her son, Christopher, of Ocala; great grandchildren: Christopher and Elizabeth. She is predeceased by brother Joseph A. Amaio, and sister Mary Amaio Paar.

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