South Florida

A legend on Miami’s federal bench, Judge William Hoeveler dies at 95

Senior United States District Judge William M. Hoeveler, shown in his federal courthouse office in 2003, monitored the court-ordered state cleanup of the Everglades for years. He was removed from the case after speaking out against the Florida Legislature pushing cleanup deadlines back. He is shown in his office at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Miami on Monday, November 24, 2003.
Senior United States District Judge William M. Hoeveler, shown in his federal courthouse office in 2003, monitored the court-ordered state cleanup of the Everglades for years. He was removed from the case after speaking out against the Florida Legislature pushing cleanup deadlines back. He is shown in his office at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Miami on Monday, November 24, 2003. Miami Herald Staff

Federal Judge William M. Hoeveler, who presided over a string of landmark cases in South Florida — from the prosecution of a notorious Panamanian dictator to the clean-up of pollution in the Everglades — has died at the age of 95.

Hoeveler was a towering figure in the legal community, admired for the rigor of his rulings, fierce sense of fairness and courtly demeanor that invited civility, especially when the issues were most contentious.

His longtime assistant once described Hoeveler, who died on Saturday at his Coral Gables home surrounded by family, as the “epitome of what a judge should be.” Even Manuel Noriega, the dictator whom Hoeveler would send to prison, wound up thanking him after his trial.

Margaret Hoeveler, one of the judge’s four children, said it was her father’s aura of kindness that touched so many people in both his personal and professional lives.

“He never wavered in his beliefs in honesty, fairness and love of mankind,” she said. “He had an equal love of the law and God. Every day of his life, he carried these beliefs with him and applied them to anyone he encountered. He was a hero to many.”

The legal community, including lawyers and judges who visited and called him in recent weeks, shared her sentiment.

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U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler Family Handout

“Judge Hoeveler was one of the kindest people I ever met,” said prominent Miami defense attorney Robert Josefsberg. “He was not kind just to his peers, but to everyone. Every person in his court, including defendants accused of terrible crimes, was treated with dignity. On many occasions, jurors, defendants, and losing lawyers thanked him for his fairness and courtesy.”

“He was the Abraham Lincoln of the federal bench,” said criminal defense attorney Howard Srebnick, who as a law clerk for another U.S. district judge in 1990 would take advantage of Hoeveler’s “open-door” policy to visit with him.

“What an opportunity it was to step into his courtroom as he was presiding over a high-profile case, watch the proceedings and then spend a few minutes with him in chambers,” said Srebnick, who would later defend an attorney charged in a major drug-related money laundering case before Hoeveler. “Hearing his perspective provided us valuable insight into the do’s and don’ts of trial practice.”

The law school ‘Hunk’

Long before he put down stakes and built a 60-year legal career in Miami, “Bill” Hoeveler seemed destined to make a mark.

Hoeveler was born in Paris to a father who served with the Marines in World War I and a mother who sang French operas. Raised outside of Philadelphia, he won a basketball scholarship to Temple University, then joined the Marines himself during World War II, before returning to finish college at Bucknell University.

At Harvard Law School, Hoeveler was elected co-president of the class of 1950, which included a future U.S. attorney general, Richard G. Kleindienst, two U.S. senators, John Chafee of Rhode Island and Ted Stevens of Alaska, and the chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, Samuel Dash.

At law school, he was known as “The Hunk,” described by a classmate as a “boogie-woogie” piano man. “All the girls would come in and would be all over Bill, but he would stop them before they made fools of themselves,” the classmate said in a 1984 profile, seven years after Hoeveler was appointed as a federal judge by President Jimmy Carter. “He was then, and still is, instinctively gracious.”

After Harvard, he moved with his new wife, Mary Griffin Smith, to Miami, where her father was a partner in a law firm that Hoeveler would join. His specialty became defending professionals — attorneys, accountants and architects — accused of malpractice. He won over witnesses and juries alike, the late trial attorney J.B. Spence once said.

“I was afraid to be in the courtroom with Bill Hoeveler,” he said. “I mean, he walks in there, tall [six feet, four inches], good-looking, like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

But his natural appeal ran deeper than the surface, according to his colleagues. Hoeveler, who in his 50s wanted to become a federal judge “to give something back,” possessed a combination of compassion and wisdom that always endeared him to others. Even the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary described Hoeveler, who once loaned his sweater to a drug-trafficking defendant for trial, as “Lincolnesque.”

“Bill Hoeveler brings out the best in us by simply being who he is,” U.S. District Judge Alan S. Gold said during a 2011 Federal Bar Association ceremony recognizing him for judicial excellence. “We want to do better and to be better when we are in his presence.”

A dictator’s ‘shining light’

Hoeveler even drew praise from the most infamous defendant ever to appear in his courtroom, the deposed Panamanian General Manuel Noriega, who was captured by U.S. forces that invaded Panama in late 1989, leading to a nationally covered Miami trial that was “the mother of all battles in the war on drugs,” as one prosecutor later described it.

“The one shining light through this legal nightmare has been your honor,” said Noriega, who was convicted of cocaine trafficking and racketeering charges in 1992. “You have acted as honest and fair as anyone can hope for.”

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In this courtroom drawing, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega faces Judge William Hoeveler during a 2007 hearing in Miami to decide where Noriega would go after he was released from prison. Shirley Henderson AP

After sentencing him to 40 years — punishment that would later be reduced to 30 years — Hoeveler declared Noriega a prisoner of war under the Geneva Conventions who should be accorded special privileges. Among them: an apartment-like cell with phone, color TV and exercise bike at the low-security Southwest Miami-Dade federal prison.

Hoeveler even wrote a 2004 letter to the U.S. Parole Commission recommending his release. He cited Noriega’s “advancing age” and his “tempered” view toward the ex-strongman. That contrasted sharply with the Bush administration’s stand to keep him behind bars, which delayed his parole for three more years.

When he completed his federal sentence, France sought Noriega’s extradition on money laundering charges stemming from his Miami case. But Noriega and his lawyers argued he should be returned to Panama, where he was wanted on murder charges, because he was a prisoner of war. His legal team said the U.S. was violating the Geneva Conventions by not sending him back to Panama. But Hoeveler and other federal judges rejected the claim, with the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear his final appeal in 2010.

“As far as I’m concerned, he paid his price to society,” Hoeveler told The Miami Herald back then. “Now he’s on his way to France, and that’s all I can say. There’s nothing that I or anyone else can do.”

Noriega was tried and convicted in France but eventually extradited to Panama, where he died at age 83 in May.

The fact that Hoeveler played such a prominent role in deciding Noriega’s fate seemed miraculous, for the judge had to undergo coronary bypass surgery midway through the Panamanian general’s trial in late 1991. Rather than declare a mistrial or turn the case over to another judge, Hoeveler had the operation and resumed the trial six weeks later.

“I had people say, ‘Why don’t you just chuck it and let somebody else finish it?’ ” Hoeveler told his colleagues. “I had an obligation to get back there and finish it.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michel “Pat” Sullivan, one of three prosecutors in the Noriega case, said he marveled over Hoeveler’s endurance under such extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

“Most judges would have declared a mistrial and it would have been entirely justified under the circumstances,” said Sullivan, who has worked in the U.S. attorney’s office for 46 years. “But Judge Hoeveler was dedicated to administering the law. He wanted to get the job done.

“It would have been very difficult to restart the trial for the prosecution and the defense,” Sullivan said. “Even the public wanted resolution to this case. It was very important to the people of Panama. Judge Hoeveler understood those stakes and put the resolution of the case ahead of his well-being.”

Fought health problems

In early 2000, however, Hoeveler suffered such a severe stroke during another colossal legal dispute — the immigration case of Cuban boy Elián Gonzáez — that he could not continue as the presiding judge. The six-year-old Cuban boy lost his mother on a tragic boat trip from Cuba to Florida, but was rescued off shore and united with his Miami relatives. The relatives sued the U.S. government after immigration authorities said they didn’t have the right to seek asylum on the boy’s behalf, concluding that power belonged to his father, who wanted him returned to Cuba.

Despite his health problems, Hoeveler returned to the bench, handling not only Noriega’s extradition case to France but many others.

Judge William Hoeveler with his dog, Maggie, a mastiff, in an undated photo. Bill Cooke Special to the Herald

His judicial secretary for nearly 40 years, Janice Tinsman, once wrote that while Hoeveler is “often considered by people to be the epitome of what a judge should be ... there is another thing he has taught us that many people do not realize, and that is we are on a journey in our lives.”

“I have seen him journey back from a stroke because he believed in what he did in serving the public,” Tinsman wrote in 2011, when Hoeveler won the Federal Bar Association’s Judicial Excellence award, named after the late U.S. District Judge Edward B. “Ned” Davis. “He did not just sit down and not come back. I have seen him journey back from the loss of his wife [Griff] only a couple of months after suffering his stroke.

“He did not quit. ... He loves the law. He did not give up. ... He has shown us that he is a man of faith in God. He has shown us that our paths in life, no matter what has put us on that path or what is in front of us, that we must always journey on.”

The Everglades dispute

After the death of his first wife, Hoeveler married a second time, to Chrstine Davies, who cared for him after his stroke.

Hoeveler even rebounded after a professional setback in the federal government’s environmental case against the state, which resulted in a consent order forcing Florida to clean up the Everglades at cost of billions of dollars.

After presiding over the case for 15 years, the judge was removed because he publicly criticized the Florida Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003 for backing a bill pushed by Florida’s powerful sugar industry that extended the deadline for restoring the ravaged River of Grass.

In a court order, Hoeveler questioned whether Gov. Bush, who supported the legislative action, was “being misled by persons who do not have the best interests of the Everglades at heart.”

He also ordered hearings to determine whether the new legislation changed the terms of the 1992 Everglades cleanup settlement between the state and federal governments. He called for the appointment of a special master to help scrutinize progress on the daunting restoration project.

After he issued the order, Hoeveler explained his position in separate interviews with The Herald, The Sun-Sentinel and The St. Petersburg Times.

“I think Bush is a good man and he means well,” Hoeveler, a lifelong Democrat who voted for Bush in 2002, said in a Times story. “But I’m afraid he fell into the hands of those who don’t like the Everglades.”

But by putting the Legislature, the governor and Florida’s sugar industry on notice that he was disturbed by the new proposal, Hoeveler got himself into an ethical bind.

U.S. Sugar Corp. claimed he was partial and sought to have him removed from the Everglades case after the judge labeled the legislation “clearly defective” in his court order, writing that he was “dismayed by the process that led to its passage.” He noted 40 sugar industry lobbyists pushed it through the Legislature.

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U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler with the late former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno Family Handout

In September 2003, Chief U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch removed Hoeveler for speaking so critically in court and to newspaper reporters about amendments to the Everglades Forever Act. To Zloch, those comments appeared to cross an ethical line about remaining impartial.

Hoeveler strongly disagreed.

“I felt what was happening was unjust to the people of Florida and the Everglades,” Hoeveler, then 81, told the Miami Herald that November. “I was angry. I believed I wouldn’t be biased in my decisions. . . . I don’t think anyone who knew me would have drawn that conclusion.”

His main goal: “I wanted what was best for the Everglades.”

Hoeveler said he found solace in his decision to speak out in the movie “Philadelphia.” Actor Tom Hanks, playing an attorney dying of AIDS who sues his law firm for firing him, testifies he became a lawyer to do some justice. Hoeveler said he, too, could identify with that principle.

In the Herald interview, Hoeveler said he still believed the Legislature and governor infringed on a binding legal blueprint to clean up the Everglades by 2006 by extending the deadline a decade and lowering phosphorous-pollution standards from farms around Lake Okeechobee.

The removal of Hoeveler from the Everglades cleanup case for appearing biased seemed like the greatest irony, for he had long been viewed in legal circles as one of Florida’s fairest federal judges. The jurist was always top rated as “exceptionally qualified” by the vast majority of lawyers surveyed in the annual Dade County Bar Association’s polls of lawyers.

Award in his name

In 2002, the University of Miami School of Law’s Center for Ethics and Public Service established an annual award in Hoeveler’s name for his dedication to both of those areas. He was the first recipient.

The center’s director, UM law professor Anthony Alfieri, said Hoeveler inspired and helped launch the center’s Historic Black Church Program, an anti-poverty and civil rights consortium of 60 inner-city churches in South Florida. “Judge Hoeveler’s commitment to law, ecumenical faith and equal access to justice carved the path for the center’s decade-long program,” Alfieri said.

Veteran South Florida attorney Jon May, who served on Noriega’s defense team, said he appeared before Hoeveler many times in drug-trafficking cases and never questioned his impartiality.

“Judge Hoeveler may not rule in your favor, but you always knew he was listening to what you had to say,” May said. “You also knew he would treat everyone with respect and not try to embarrass anyone. He would let you try your case so you always knew you were not likely to have any issues on appeal.

“He was the perfect gentleman and the ideal judge,” May said. “Everyone loved him.”

U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler is survived by his four children, William H. Hoeveler (Hank), Elizabeth H. Davis (Betsy), Margaret Y. Hoeveler and Mary G. Hoeveler; sister, Yvonne H. Rayher; grandson, Milo Hoeveler-Castano; current wife, Christine Davies Hoeveler; and stepchildren, Stephen C. Davies and Susan C. Davies. The judge is also survived by Hank Hoeveler’s husband, Isak Tykesson.

Memorial services will be announced at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family suggested that donations be made to the Nature Conservancy or the Humane Society of Miami. Judge Hoeveler always had a fondness for dogs.

Memorial services for Judge Hoeveler will be at 11 a.m. Dec. 1 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, 464 NE 16th St., Miami