Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Monica Gordo knew she wanted to be a lawyer since she was a little girl. She discovered she wanted to be a judge after prosecuting the case of another little girl, killed by an AK-47 round as she played in the front yard of her Miami neighborhood Liberty City home.
Sherdavia Jenkins died in her mother’s arms. She was 9 years old.
“It really affected me,” Gordo said. “I thought, this shouldn’t happen in America — that children die at the front door of their house.”
The case took three years. Gordo was pregnant with her second son by the time it finished. When she came back from maternity leave and stepped into a new position as a division chief in the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, she discovered she had a new ambition: to become a judge.
“Something happened in that process,” she said. “That was when I realized that my passion was different. It changed.”
Becoming a prosecutor, and eventually a judge, almost didn’t happen.
“It’s funny, because in law school I never even took criminal law,” she said. “I went to law school thinking I would be some kind of corporate transactional type. I might not even practice law.”
Gordo was born in Miami in 1975, the daughter of a doctor and one of the first woman vice presidents at Miami-based Eastern Airlines. Watching them work two and three jobs each and enduring three years of separation so her father could go to medical school in the Dominican Republic inspired her.
“He had an absolute passion for what he wanted to do in life,” Gordo said. She followed his example, just not into medicine. “What I did want to do is find something I had a passion for.”
Gordo graduated high school at age 16, and got her bachelor’s in business at the University of Miami when she was 21. She went straight into UM’s school of law. In her third year, she took a litigation skills course just to make sure her education was well-rounded. The professor pushed her into an internship at the state attorney’s office.
“I ended up trying a first-degree murder,” she said. “And I just got bitten by the trial bug.”
She went to work as an assistant state attorney as soon as she graduated, and stayed there until she moved to the bench in 2011. She started with Driving Under the Influence cases and worked her way up through felony robberies and murder to the career criminals unit and, finally, the Gang Strike Force.
“She was always prepared, diligent, ethical, and I see all of that on the bench,” said Jonathan Meltz, the criminal defense attorney who faced Gordo in the Sherdavia Jenkins case. “She’s been exactly what you would hope she would be on the bench. … She conducts herself as the consummate professional.”
Gordo said her experience in the state attorney’s office makes her a little tough on prosecutors who appear before her.
“I am tough on them, on their discovery obligations. The defense knows that in my courtroom if they file a motion to compel and, rightfully, the state should give it to them, I grant it,” she said. “In a criminal case when so much is at risk for everybody, and by that I mean people’s liberties are taken away from the moment they are arrested to some extent. They’re granted bond, but their lives are affected, their jobs are affected, their marriages are affected.”
Because of that, she said, she’s strict about not granting continuances. “I’m very big on not letting cases linger. I think it’s very important, where people enter a plea of not guilty and the state’s bringing these charges against them. Because it’s affecting their life, the state needs to prosecute the case.”
Gordo still prepares for a case just like she did as a young prosecutor.
“I read all the pleadings. I make them file written motions. My calendar is open to everybody, but they have to file something in writing as to what it’s on for,” she said. “I’m tough on that. The reason I am is because I want to be prepared.”
She insists on strict decorum.
“I’m very formal. I like a courtroom that’s very formal. I’m very cordial and very pleasant, but we take the bench at nine,” she said. “I’ve never not taken the bench at nine. In fact, I had a flat tire and I took the bench at nine.”
“I’m law-abiding, is the best way to put it,” Gordo said. “It’s the law. It’s not like I’m making it up as I go along. There are these small things called the rules of procedure. I’d say I’m definitely strong on following the rules.”
The reason, she said, is obvious.
“At the end of the day, it’s not whether you think the person is guilty or you don’t like the person or ‘we know he did it because he got 19 before.’ It’s, can you prove it here? And do you have the evidence to prove it?”