Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Richard Feder’s “grand experiment” in decorum and dignity made national news when he asked trial lawyers in his courtroom to wear black judicial robes, to remove the sartorial vices of a mid-1980s Miami courthouse and elevate it to one of British judicial majesty.
“This added tremendously to the collegiality and professionalism of the lawyers, and the lawyers, most of them, loved it,” said Feder’s son, attorney Scott Feder. “He would have had them wear wigs like the barristers in England but he thought that was going too far.”
Feder, who died Monday, Aug. 8, at 88, was appointed to the court by then-Gov. Reubin Askew in 1981. He was recognized by the Florida Bar for his contributions to the creation of a separate family division in judicial court and served as its first administrative judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit from 1992 until his retirement in 2000. His portrait and a plaque honor him as the first charter president of the Family Law American Inn of Court (1995-96) and hang in the Miami courthouse.
“Whenever I come in I look at it,” said family division Judge Stan Blake. “He was a gentle, caring man who, ahead of his time, realized we needed a separate division for family matters, and that was so important. It’s difficult for judges to handle the civil division and give the time and attention to the special issues you have with families that are so divided and the kids who are looking to try and have some normalcy.”
Feder, born March 9, 1928, in Passaic, New Jersey, graduated from New York University School of Law. After moving to Miami in 1959, Feder argued numerous civil rights cases for the American Civil Liberties Union, including before the U.S. Supreme Court. He served on the ACLU’s board and was awarded the Nelson Poynter Civil Liberties Award by then-U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
“He firmly believed in the sign above him that said, ‘We who labor here seek only truth,’ ” said his son, who recalled his father calling young lawyers into his chambers after trials and before verdicts to “go over the good things and offer pointers for improvement.”
Judge Teresa Pooler, who serves on the 11th Judicial Circuit’s criminal bench, was one of those new prosecutors in the early 1980s. “When you’re a young lawyer, judges can be intimidating. But he was very helpful to the young lawyers,” she said. “He had this respect for people. He treated everybody with real dignity. . . . Now that I am a judge I know how hard it can be to maintain that calm thing, whatever it is, and that’s the thing I most appreciated about him.”
One year after Feder’s robes experiment, the Criminal Justic Council conducted a study that found that in Feder’s court, 82 percent of jurors thought the lawyers were dignified. In a court sans robes, 67 percent perceived such dignity. The council urged all judges to follow Feder’s lead.
Three years later, Feder, who joked he would have gone with the powdered wigs to please some of the lawyers with receding hairlines, spoke to the Miami Herald and surmised, “One [judge] said he didn’t want to flatter lawyers by raising them to the level of judges.”
Feder is also survived by children Brett and Robbin Feder and stepdaughters Sherrie Venzer-Quiterio, Diane Venzer and Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ellen Venzer; and 13 grandchildren. Services will be at 11:45 a.m. Aug. 11 at Temple Israel, 137 NE 19th St., Miami. Donations can be made to the ACLU.