When Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat came to Miami from Cuba at age 16, he enrolled in high school but quickly dropped out to support his family by selling doughnuts, washing cars and delivering messages on bicycle.
Those were his first jobs, but they wouldn’t be his last.
Rodriguez-Chomat went on to work as an accountant, an IRS agent, a tax lawyer, a Florida lawmaker and finally a Miami-Dade judge. He retired from the bench in December, and despite a long battle with cancer, returned to his private law practice. He died late Saturday. He was 72.
“He had an amazing life,” said his son, Rodolfo Rodriguez-Chomat, 39. “You only wish it could have lasted longer. He only wanted to do good.”
On the bench, Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat was a no-nonsense judge who made national news for sentencing a flippant teen girl to 30 days in jail for giving him the middle finger in court. During his six years on the bench, Rodriguez-Chomat mostly presided over “Repeat Offender Court,” overseeing the worst criminals in Miami-Dade County.
It was not an easy job.
“He was a strong law-and-order judge. He carried a loaded pistol under his robes in court,” defense lawyer David Sisselman said. “But he personally anguished over having to sentence defendants to life in prison. Though, when the law, facts and evidence required him to do so, he did. He always followed the law.”
Rodriguez-Chomat was born on June 28, 1945, in Havana. His father was a law school dean at Villanova University in Havana, but moved the family to Miami in 1961 after Fidel Castro took power.
Rodriguez-Chomat earned his high school degree through night school, then got his undergraduate degree from Biscayne College, now St. Thomas University. While working as an IRS agent, Rodriguez-Chomat earned his law degree and started a solo practice.
A Republican, Rodriguez-Chomat was deeply committed to Cuban exile causes, twice going on flotillas to deliver memorials at the edge of Cuban waters. It also spurred him to run for office several times.
In 1994, he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives, representing a heavily Cuban-American district in West Miami-Dade.
During his four years in office, he became the chairman of the Cuban Caucus, a group created to unite Cuban-American legislators in Tallahassee, and rallied for benefits for immigrants. He also made news for tussling with a fellow lawmaker in chambers.
He lost his reelection bid in 1998.
“The Cuban cause was extremely personal for my father. Most of what he did when he was in the state House trying to help Cuban people,” his son said.
After returning to private practice, Rodriguez-Chomat ran for judge in 2010 unopposed. He served in the criminal division — his first real foray into criminal law — and became known as a tough but thoughtful judge.
Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Tim VanderGiesen, who was a chief prosecutor assigned to the judge’s court, called him “a principled man with tremendous compassion for others.”
“He would grin from ear to ear and laugh when I would tease him about being a bleeding-heart liberal judge who was also a staunch Republican that once duked it out on the floor of the state House,” VanderGiesen said. “I learned a lot from him as a judge. I will miss him as a friend.”
In one high-profile case, Rodriguez-Chomat rejected a plea deal for a former South Beach model who killed a college student in a hit-and-run crash. He agreed with the victim’s family that believed the plea deal, which called for no jail time, was too lenient. Ultimately, he accepted a plea deal that increased her house arrest by one year.
In another prominent case, Rodriguez-Chomat sentenced a Cuban-American man to 12 years in prison for attacking two black men in a hate crime. The man was still upset over being shot by a black man during race riots in 1980. Luis Alberto Gonzalez could have faced up to 60 years prison under Florida’s hate-crime law after his conviction on charges he tried to run his truck over two black men while yelling racial slurs in Hialeah.
But it was a middle finger that rocketed Rodriguez-Chomat to fame as a judge.
In 2013, a giggling teen girl arrested on a drug charge flippantly told the judge “adios” before walking off. The irritated judge called her back and doubled her bond amount. “Are you serious?” Penelope Soto gasped.
“I am serious,” the judge replied. “Adios.”
Soto flipped him off, spurring Rodriguez-Chomat to sentence her to 30 days in jail for for contempt of court.
The exchange, caught on bond-court video, went viral across the country. It was a talk story. Some vilified the judge as being too harsh. Others applauded him for cracking down on the young woman in an era of rudeness.
Rodriguez-Chomat later withdrew his sentence, imploring her to seek counseling for drugs. “I’m counting on you,” he told her.
He is survived by his wife, Susanita Ferro Rodriguez-Chomat, children Rodolfo Rodriguez-Chomat, 39, and Irene Coroalles, 35, and stepchildren Jacqueline Marrero, 38, Jeanette Marrero-Russon, 35, and Alexander Egea, 28.
A viewing will be Monday at Caballero Rivero Coral Gables, 1717 SW 37th Ave., between 6 p.m. and midnight. The funeral will be 1 p.m. Tuesday at Saint Dominic Catholic Church, 5909 NW Seventh St. Burial will follow at Caballero Rivero Dade South, 14200 SW 117th Ave.