Local Obituaries

Miami-Dade’s former top attorney, Robert Ginsburg, dies at 73

Robert Ginsburg served as Miami-Dade County attorney from 1980 to 2005.
Robert Ginsburg served as Miami-Dade County attorney from 1980 to 2005.

Updated with information on memorial services.

Robert Ginsburg, the attorney who guided the Miami-Dade County Commission through the 1980 McDuffie riots and Mariel boatlift, the 2000 Bush-Gore recount, a new Miami Heat sports arena and the start of Metrorail, died Saturday of pancreatic cancer in Vero Beach.

Ginsburg, who earned his bachelor’s in economics from the University of Miami in 1966 and his law degree from Harvard in 1969, was 73.

“For all the changes we went through as a community he was always the one who went to the table to collaborate on how we would pull together as a community,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said. “He was a preeminent negotiator. Always a gentleman no matter how tough the negotiations became. And one of the most prolific creators of municipal law. The opinions, a lot of them, were designed and created by Bob and his advocacy.”

Merrett Stierheim, county manager during the Miami riots in May 1980, worked alongside Ginsburg to seek ways to stimulate black entrepreneurship in the affected areas — a daunting task, he recalled.

“I wrote a memo to the law department that said, ‘Can we use some of the purchasing power of the county, which at that time was billions of dollars, to stimulate black entrepreneurship?’ And the answer came back and said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ I took that legal opinion and hand-wrote on the bottom, ‘If we can prove that either through overt or covert discrimination that the black community does not share equitably in the economic pie of this community could we then spend and develop programs that stimulate black entrepreneurship?’ And that came back ‘yes.’ That was coming from Bob,” Stierheim said.

Three loan funds were set up with $17 million to encourage black capitalists as Miami and the county adopted several policies — not all of them successful — with that goal in mind.

Ginsburg’s integrity never flagged, Stierheim said.

“Commissioners can be volatile if they are not hearing what they want to hear but he was straight. If someone made a motion that was out of order he would say so — always respectfully and explain why. I don’t know of a single person that would say anything other than complimentary about his professionalism and his belief in the law,” Stierheim said.

“Such a classy guy. He was so helpful in crafting the ballot language when we were trying to pass The Children’s Trust — and did — 15 years ago. He was a great example of principled public servant,” said David Lawrence Jr., founding chairman of The Children’s Trust and retired Miami Herald publisher.

The Miami-Dade County Attorney’s Office was led by Ginsburg for 25 years from 1980 to 2005. He joined the office in 1970. County attorneys advise the commission on legal issues, negotiate contracts, defend the county against lawsuits and perform other tasks that a private law firm would handle for a large corporation.

He was highly intelligent, also very personable, a great collaborator. He had the ability to recruit some of the best lawyers to office. He really created that office.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle.

For the last eight years, Ginsburg, who moved to Vero Beach after retiring from his Miami position, served as city attorney for the town of Sebastian.

“We were able to tap into his intellect and experience from his 30-plus years in Miami-Dade,” said Sebastian’s City Manager Joe Griffin. “We were so fortunate to have this man working for us. He served with incredible distinction here and was well-regarded as the most ethical and brightest intellect in this area.”

When Ginsburg announced that he was stepping down from his Miami-Dade post in 2005, commissioners didn’t have to look far to appoint his successor — or his next two successors — given how well Ginsburg groomed the office. First up was Murray Greenberg.

The two worked closely for 25 years, with Greenberg, who died in December at 73, serving as Ginsburg’s first assistant. Greenberg had always considered retiring with Ginsburg but agreed to the post for two years.

Robert Ginsburg served as Miami-Dade County Attorney from 1980 to 2005. Bob Cuevas For the Miami Herald

“For 25 years, we’ve been, as some said ‘Frick and Frack,’ or whatever you want to calls us,” Ginsburg told the Miami Herald in 2005 of his pal with whom he worked on issues like the recount in the Bush-Gore race for the White House in 2000. Ginsberg also served on Miami-Dade’s charter view task force from July 2007 to January 2008.

Greenberg would be succeeded as county attorney by Robert Cuevas Jr. who had worked alongside Ginsburg since 1970.

“He was not only a wonderful lawyer but it was his sense of the importance of doing the public’s legal work correctly and giving policymakers the right answers and options,” Cuevas said. “He believed that government was an instrument for good and he conveyed that to all of us in the office. You had to be professional and at the top of your game because the people we represented were the public and deserved our best.”

His bond validations for improvements in the community — like Metrorail and police stations — will affect us for generations. That was largely his legacy. He led by example and he was a gracious, generous soul. I was lucky I got to be mentored by him.

Former Miami-Dade County Attorney Robert Cuevas.

Cuevas, in turn, would be succeeded by Abigail Price-Williams in 2015, the first woman and first African American to serve as the top lawyer for Florida’s largest local government. Ginsburg hired Price-Williams to the attorney’s office in 1990.

“He set the standard, a really high standard for all of us of excellence and professionalism. He was exceptional in so many ways, not just as a brilliant attorney, but as a gentle, kind person. It was an honor to serve under him in the county attorney’s office. Our office, what it is today, is because of what he helped to establish,” Price-Williams said.

“Running an office and representing the county commissioners and the mayor and the property appraiser and all the departments in county government is massive and it’s not an easy task — but he made it appear to be,” Price-Williams said. “Because he did it with such integrity and grace and professionalism. We represent the commissioners and the mayor but our job is, in many respects, to do it in such a way that is responsive and respectful” to the community.

The Toronto-born Ginsburg also knew how to wield power.

Bob always provided competent and creative advice, but what made him unique was his ability to guide the County during an era of change and intense political upheaval.

Former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas.

“When Bob had something important to say at a County Commission meeting, instead of raising his voice, he would lower it — and speak slowly and deliberately. The chambers would become unusually quiet and we all knew that we better pay close attention. Bob didn’t waste words,” former County Commissioner Katy Sorenson said.

“When I was a new and very green commissioner, Bob kindly and generously took me under his wing and never failed to give me thoughtful, sound advice. He was every bit as good as Bill Clinton at explaining stuff,” Sorenson said.

Few county or city attorneys last even half as long as Ginsburg held his county attorney jobs, which often act as “political shock absorbers” for elected officials. Ginsburg believed that his office thrived because it stayed out of political fights. “We are apolitical and we give the commission the legal advice that it needs,” Ginsburg told the Herald in 2005.

During his tenure, the office grew from about a dozen lawyers to 75.

“I have never met anyone in my life who had the power to make people feel better when they were around him. The circumstances didn’t matter. Just spending time with him enriched you,” John Shubin of the Miami law firm ShubinBass said.

After his retirement, Ginsburg counseled the firm for about six or seven years, Shubin said. “All we asked was for him to spend time with us and he had such a meaningful impact. When you put in perspective his and Murray’s passing, they just so dominated the county and the governance of the county and had impact in so many different ways.”

Ginsburg’s survivors include his wife, Margie Ginsburg, children Michael and Samantha and newborn granddaughter Bella.

A celebration of life will be at 11 a.m. Friday, Aug. 18, at Strunk Funeral Home, 916 17th St., Vero Beach.

Donations in Ginsburg’s memory can go to Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, 1500 Rosecrans Ave., Suite 200, Manhattan Beach, California., 90266.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen