Local Obituaries

Miami federal judge Shelby Highsmith dies at 86

Judge Shelby Highsmith served on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida from 1991 to 2008.
Judge Shelby Highsmith served on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida from 1991 to 2008.

Miami federal judge Shelby Highsmith was our version of the Lone Ranger.

“He had a cache of silver dollars that he kept replenishing that he gave to individuals he met who impressed him in some way. I teased him that the Lone Ranger always left a silver bullet but he would be remembered for his silver dollars — and he is,” his wife of 43 years, Mary Jane Highsmith, said in an e-mail.

If the court system returned the favor, the Highsmith family could be awash in silver. The soft-spoken patriarch, who died at 86 at his Fort Belvoir, Virginia, home on Dec. 2, oversaw some of South Florida’s more high-profile cases over his four decades on the bench.

Among them: In 2003, Highsmith ruled that Elián González’s Miami relatives could sue former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and two other officials for their supervisory roles in the government’s seizure of the Cuban boy.

A decade earlier, Highsmith ruled that Miami-Dade County violated the voting rights of its Spanish-speaking citizens by mailing an election brochure printed solely in English to 400,000 homes.

And in 1993, Highsmith ruled that the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach was not a public forum for political debate when he backed the city’s decision to prohibit a white unity rally at the site.

Highsmith wasn’t always victorious — the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his decision in the González case, for instance. But Highsmith was a fixture on the Dade County Bar Association’s annual rankings of judge’s deemed exceptionally qualified. He also received the Outstanding Alumni Achievement Law Award from the University of Missouri in 1998 and was a Judicial Fellow of the International Society of Barristers.

Beyond career highlights, however, Highsmith was noted for his gentlemanly demeanor.

“Shelby was one of the last true Southern gentlemen,” his wife said. “His intensely blue eyes and smile, his courtly manner were his hallmarks. That courtly manner included kissing a lady's hand when introduced to her.”

In 2004, Highsmith sentenced an escaped prisoner from Colorado to 17-1/2 years in prison for the theft of jewelry and the unauthorized use of a credit card that had belonged to an Israeli visitor on a cross-country adventure. The sentence was triple the penalty normally handed out for such offenses because Highsmith concluded that prosecutors supplied ample circumstantial evidence to show that the suspect caused the death of the victim, whose body was not found.

Born Jan. 31, 1929, in Jacksonville, the Army captain who earned a Bronze Star Medal, among his military honors, moved to Miami in 1958. He served as special counsel to then-Gov. Claude Kirk’s War on Crime Program and to the Florida Racing Commission. Highsmith was appointed a circuit court judge for the 11th Judicial Circuit in 1970. In 1975, he resigned to resume trial practice as senior member of Highsmith, Strauss and Nelson. President George H.W. Bush appointed Highsmith to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in 1991. He would serve until 2008.

Off the bench, Highsmith was South Florida through and through. An avid cyclist in the ’70s and ’80s, he often pedaled to his law office in Coconut Grove on the weekend from his Falls-area home.

“As a boy, I occasionally got to tag along on those rides, barely able to keep up with the brutal trek, but we would stop for my reward of one of those weird, frothy, sickly-sweet fruit drinks at the outside snack window of the Parrot Jungle,” Shelby Jr. said. Dad, meanwhile, professed the natural powers of the “smelly sulfur-water bubbling out of the ground” at Boca Chita State Park.

His son reveals a couple other Highsmith traits not everyone was privy to: “His ‘business hair’ was in large part a product of a thick, stiff-bristled brush and Consort Hairspray for Men. But if you knew him as the captain of the Trinity or the My Way — two Sea Ray cabin cruisers that his family lived on for many a peaceful week at Bahia Honda Key State Park — you would have seen how sun, sea salt, and a lack of business meetings created a Brady-style ’fro.”

Highsmith also took pride in splitting his own wood for a working fireplace in his home. “Teaching me to split logs with a sledgehammer and wedge, with patience and an easy swing rather than brute force, was one of those father-son lessons that made me feel like I was ready to take on more manly tasks,” Shelby Jr. said. “I remember we had a ceramic plate with the saying: He who chops his own wood is twice warmed. I didn't get the nuance when I was a boy.”

In addition to his wife and son, Highsmith is survived by his daughter Holly Highsmith Abrams, his grandson Samuel Edward and his sister Violet Sheller. Services and interment will be at Arlington National Cemetery at a future date.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

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