New generation of judges serving on federal bench in South Florida

For a fleeting moment this fall, U.S. District Judge Robert N. Scola Jr. declared in jest that he wished he were “king of the world.”

If he had such power, Scola said from the bench, he would deny a defense lawyer’s request to travel to Pakistan to question a group of defendants charged in a Miami terrorism case along with two Muslim clerics. Since the missing defendants weren’t present, the judge considered them “fugitives.’’

But the judge let the defense team make the upcoming trip against fierce opposition from prosecutors, because case law allows such extraordinary depositions, he found.

Scola, a former Miami-Dade prosecutor and state circuit court judge, relishes his role as one of three new members on South Florida’s federal bench, which is experiencing a generational sea change as the result of several retirements and presidential appointments.

“I knew I wanted to be a judge when I was 10 years old; my father was a judge in Massachusetts,” Scola said, during a brief December interview wedged between verdicts in the South Beach “bar-girls” trial and the sentencing of a mental-health clinic director convicted of Medicare fraud.

Over the past few years, the federal court in the Southern District of Florida has seen the departure of four judges — Daniel T.K. Hurley, Paul C. Huck, Alan S. Gold and Patricia A. Seitz — who have gone on “senior” status, meaning they handle lighter caseloads. Another federal judge, Adalberto Jordan, was confirmed this year as a member of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Those five vacancies, in one of the busiest federal districts for criminal and civil cases in the country, accounted for about one-third of all the positions on the federal bench in South Florida.

The retirements have generated coveted openings that have been filled by Scola, 57; Kathleen M. Williams, 56, a former Miami federal public defender; and Robin S. Rosenbaum, 46, a former Fort Lauderdale federal magistrate judge. Rosenbaum, also a one-time federal prosecutor, was sworn in as a new U.S. district judge Dec. 13.

“It’s pretty obvious that Robin is never going to make a decent living,” 11th Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus, for whom Rosenbaum once clerked, quipped about her public-service career during her investiture in Fort Lauderdale federal court.

But then Marcus struck a more serious note, describing federal district judges as the “crucible of justice” in the U.S. court system. “I have to say, Robin, this is work you were born to do,” he said.

Another recent nominee: Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William L. Thomas, a former assistant public defender in both the state and federal system. Thomas is scheduled for confirmation as a federal judge in 2013. If confirmed, he would become the first openly gay black man appointed to a federal judgeship in the nation.

Michael Caruso, the Miami federal public defender who replaced Williams in August, said the appointment of federal judges is in many ways a “president’s most enduring legacy.”

“All presidents strive to appoint smart, fair and hardworking lawyers,” Caruso said, commenting on the four nominated by President Barack Obama in South Florida. “President Obama, in addition to choosing women and men who share these traits, has chosen those who’ve been trial lawyers in the criminal justice system and who have devoted a significant portion of their career to public service.”

Indeed, whenever there is a vacancy, dozens of state circuit judges, federal magistrate judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys apply to the Florida Federal Judicial Nominating Commission.

Miami attorney Kendall Coffey, who serves on the commission, said the turnover on South Florida’s federal bench has been significant, but there is always a steady supply of “the legal community’s best and brightest” eager to fill the prestigious positions.

The 60-plus member commission, appointed by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, reviews applications, including educational background, general legal experience, trial activity, judicial roles, written work and recommendations, among many factors.

The rigorous process also involves interviews with commission members, who pick three finalists. They are further interviewed by Florida’s two U.S. senators. The president makes the final nomination, which requires Senate confirmation.

The nominating process is highly political for these lifetime judicial appointments, depending on whether a Democrat or a Republican is sitting in the White House. The confirmation process can also lead to rejection, or drag on seemingly forever.

Case in point: the confirmation of Williams, who was a former federal prosecutor in addition to serving as Miami’s longtime federal public defender. She was nominated by Obama in July 2010. But Williams’ confirmation was delayed for a year, partly because U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch in Fort Lauderdale privately expressed opposition to her nomination.

Chief U.S. District Judge Federico A. Moreno came to Williams’ rescue in July 2011, writing to Senate leaders: “Ms. Williams ... has been awaiting confirmation for the longest period of any present nominee to the district court in the entire country. ... The judgeship Ms. Williams has been nominated to fill has been vacant for two years!”

The following month, Williams was finally confirmed, along with Scola, whose confirmation was relatively quick.

As is customary, dozens of civil and criminal cases were dumped on the newcomers.

Williams has presided over a variety of cases, including a nasty dispute between auto insurance mogul Nicolas Estrella and the insurer of his yacht, which was scuttled over the Bahamas. She also oversaw the case of Ponzi schemer Gaston E. Cantens and the prosecution of Seminole Tribe leader David Cypress on income-tax violations.

Although Cypress only pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return in 2007, understating his income by $285,000, the new judge put his crime in a compelling context: “I find what Mr. Cypress pleaded to and agreed to in his proffer was uniquely and sadly American. He was cooking the books.”

Scola has presided over some long trials, including the criminal fraud case against four men accused of directing a bunch of “bar girls” to seduce and swindle male customers at Russian-style South Beach clubs. The bar operators racked up bogus bills for champagne, vodka and caviar on the patrons’ credit cards.

The trial lasted 11 weeks, ending with convictions Thursday of three of the four defendants, all of whom testified at trial.

A Miami attorney who represented one of the male victims in the so-called B-girls case said Scola balanced the interests of all parties during the trial — the hallmark of fairness.

“He carefully allowed the defense attorneys to have generous cross-examination of the witnesses, while protecting the victims who were testifying about personal and embarrassing facts,” said Joseph DeMaria, a former federal prosecutor.

“As difficult as it was to testify about these events, my client was very appreciative of the professional way that the case was handled.”