South Florida

Kenneth Ryskamp, federal judge known for controversial segregation rulings, dies at 85

Federal Judge Kenneth L. Ryskamp, shown in his office at the Federal Court in West Palm Beach in a 1998 file photo.
Federal Judge Kenneth L. Ryskamp, shown in his office at the Federal Court in West Palm Beach in a 1998 file photo. Miami Herald File photo

Kenneth Ryskamp, a longtime South Florida federal judge who presided over an array of cases — from cocaine cowboys to public corruption to school desegregation — while sparking criticism about his views on civil rights, has died. He was 85.

Ryskamp, who died on Wednesday, lived in Jupiter and spent most of his 30-year career as a federal judge in West Palm Beach. He had graduated from the University of Miami School of Law and worked in private practice before President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the bench in 1986.

In the early 1990s, Ryskamp was twice nominated to the federal appeals court in Atlanta by President George H. W. Bush, but his appointment was blocked by two U.S. senators, Bob Graham of Florida and Joe Biden of Delaware. Both focused on a perception of Ryskamp as being insensitive to minority groups in his rulings and cited his membership in the Riviera Country Club, a private Coral Gables establishment said to discriminate against Jews, blacks and Cubans.

But Fort Lauderdale attorney Bruce Rogow, an expert in constitutional and appellate law, said Ryskamp got “a bad rap.”

“He was patient, he was a good listener, he was a serious person, he was a religious person, but he always committed to following the law as he saw it,” Rogow told the Sun Sentinel. “I thought that hiccup that happened in the civil rights arena was not merited, was not deserved and underestimated his commitment to the law.

“I never had any doubt about his integrity in civil rights cases.”

Prominent South Florida criminal defense attorney Richard Lubin agreed with Rogow, saying the perception was “unfair.”

“Whenever there were minority defendants in his courtroom, Judge Ryskamp always dealt with them with equal handedness,” Lubin told the Miami Herald. “He took each defendant on his or her own and looked at them as a person. He was always fair.

“I thought he was a credit to the profession. He was a good man.”

Throughout the 1990s, Ryskamp gained a reputation for controversial rulings in a series of challenges to the Broward County School Board’s desegregation policies. Among them: he found that the school district did not intentionally discriminate against black schoolchildren when it built more modern schools in predominantly white sections of the county, bussed blacks out of their neighborhoods and barred them from specialized magnet programs, according to the Sun Sentinel.

In the 2000 era, Ryskamp was in the public eye again when he threw out a state case against Nicholas Copertino, whom a jury convicted in the 1996 auto-crash deaths of five teenagers, including Dori Slosberg, the twin sister of state Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, and daughter of former Rep. Irv Slosberg. Copertino was driving his car at high speeds in the Boca Raton area when he lost control, killing the five teens seated in the back.

In a constitutional challenge, Ryskamp ruled that Copertino deserved a new trial because Palm Beach County Assistant State Attorney Ellen Roberts made errors by showing the jury autopsy photos of the victims and calling Copertino “Mr. Hitler.” In his order, Ryskamp called Roberts a “rogue prosecutor” who “purposefully and intentionally” injected inflammatory remarks into a criminal trial.

Ryskamp’s decision was overturned by the federal appeals court in Atlanta, and the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to hear the case.

Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ryskamp attended Calvin College for his undergraduate studies before going to law school at the University of Miami, where he graduated in 1956. For nearly three years after that, Ryskamp was a law clerk for Judge Mallory H. Horton of the Florida Third District Court of Appeal. He went into private practice in 1959.

Ryskamp became a federal judge in 1986 and eventually a senior judge until his retirement a year ago. Ryskamp’s wife of 52 years, Karyl Sonja Ryskamp, died in May 2016.

Ryskamp is survived by his daughter, Cara Ryskamp Porter, and two granddaughters, Leigh Hinton Brown and Dana Bennett Brown.

Funeral arrangements are pending.