Palm Beach County Judge Peter Evans wanted to be a professor. Until he did it.
“I thought at first that I would become a professor in an ivory tower teaching undergrads for my entire life. I worked for a year as a teaching assistant,” he said. “I realized I could not spend my career teaching political science to music majors. It just wasn’t going to work. So I applied to law school.”
That put him on a well-traveled family path. His grandfather had been a judge in New York City. So had an uncle.
It also put him on the path to doing what he wanted to do in the first place. But that would come years later.
Evans attended Georgetown during the Watergate era. “For a law student to be in Washington, as you sat there and watched a constitutional crisis of biblical proportion unfold before your eyes with professors every day who were involved in it, it was a fascinating experience.”
He worked his way through law school as an investigator for the District of Columbia Public Defender and still has a souvenir from those days — a transcript of the Richard Nixon recordings that he got signed by former top White House figures John Dean, John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman when he ran into them in a courthouse hallway.
“The only major autograph I do not have on that book is Richard Nixon’s,” Evans said.
After graduation, he passed The Florida Bar examination and took a job with a Palm Beach County insurance defense firm Weathers & Narkier.
The hire was decided at a Monday night Dolphins game against the Baltimore Colts. Evans met with Stan Narkier earlier in the day and was due to meet Frank Weathers in the firm’s box at the game.
Evans arrived late. Weathers told him: “I’ll talk to you at halftime. Sit down over there,” Evans recalled. “At halftime, he says, ‘You’re short. You’re fat. You’re Jewish. You’re just like Stan. Best partner I ever had. Give him a call in the morning. I’m going to get a beer.”
Evans stayed with the firm for two years, then went on his own “doing whatever came through the door. About the time I took the bench, primarily dissolution of marriage. I was doing some products liability defense work, was doing a lot of construction litigation.”
In 1988, he ran for an open county court seat and won. That’s how he got back to teaching.
“That actually turned out to be perhaps my greatest calling in that in addition to what I do now, I am a judicial educator,” he said.
Evans started teaching at the Florida Judicial College in 1992. In 1999, he joined the National Judicial College faculty. He has taught judges from every state and from countries around the world. He also expanded the college’s reach into cyberspace, offering its first online judicial education program.
The fundamental lesson he tries to impart is something he applies to himself.
“Probably one of the most important lessons I have for new judges in county court is recognizing that you are the face of the judiciary,” he said. “And everything you do, leave a legacy of quality.”
He makes his point playing a “Name That Jurist” game, using pictures of some of the nation’s greatest judges.
“No one can name them. But they can name Judge Judy. The point is that what we do in this court is we are the front lines. The great majority of people who ever come into contact with the court system are going to come into it in my court,” Evans said. “It’s the people’s court. It’s the everyday person’s court. For every person they see in circuit court, I see a thousand.”
In some ways, he said it’s also more challenging than circuit court.
“If you’ve got two lawyers, you sit back, a lot of times you’re the referee. The jury decides, and you’re just there to call the balls and strikes,” he said. “In small claims court it’s a struggle. How do you keep the playing field level so that justice is done when you have people who are outmatched — you have a lawyer against some guy who didn’t graduate from high school? … How do you find that middle ground where you’re not injecting yourself in the case but you still keep it fair?”
It’s a far cry from his youth as the son of a woman raising three boys alone, working since he was 11 at everything from paperboy to mailman and making mediocre grades.
“I worked a factory job in high school from four to midnight, my last year making thermostats at Columbus Electrical Manufacturing and Supply Company. I was told not to go to college, to go to a vocational school,” he said. “At my 20th high school reunion, I got what was called the Biggest F-ing Surprise award.”