Ellen Feld (Melanie Bell)
Broward County Court Judge Ellen Feld calls what she does “a service industry.”
But it wasn’t her first choice.
The Long Island native studied fashion merchandising in college, then communications. Her goal then was far from a career in law.
“I wanted to go into public relations,” she said.
When she graduated, however, she decided not to go to work just yet.
“I think after college I just didn’t know what I wanted to do yet,” she said, “so I just kept going to school. And law school was interesting to me.”
There were no lawyers in her family. Her father was in business, her mother a medical secretary.
“In law school I clerked for civil firms,” she said. “I never clerked for a criminal firm, so I never had that attraction.”
She wound up working for the man who is now her campaign treasurer, Douglas Bell.
“I worked for the same guy for 24 years,” she said. “I still call him my boss.”
The firm did primarily local government work, along with “some personal injuries, contracts, just general civil litigation. Whatever would walk in the door in addition to local government.”
After two decades in private practice, Feld decided to run for the bench.
It took her three tries. She finally won election in 2008, when she defeated incumbent Judge Julio Gonzalez Jr.
“I wanted to be a judge,” Feld said. “I really wanted to serve. And I’m really glad I worked as hard as I did to get it because it was worth the effort.”
Working in the county’s West Regional courthouse she handles both civil and misdemeanor criminal cases.
“I like that I have both,” she said. “My criminal cases are misdemeanors. … We get criminal traffic infractions. We get DUIs. We get prostitution. We’ll get possession of cannabis. So it’s not the rapists or the murderers.”
Almost all of the cases she presides over are pro se.
“It’s a little different in the satellites. It’s a little quieter. We don’t have public defenders in court. We have prosecutors. If they need a public defender we’ll reset it downtown.”
Still, she said, the prosecutor and the court staff work as a team to find a resolution, not just a conviction.
“We give them a chance. We give them diversion programs,” she said. “My best days in court are when we have the status conference after the arraignment and the defendants have successfully completed the program. Then I can let them know how proud I am of them, how happy I am for them that they took advantage of a second chance and they did the right thing.”
Similarly, she said, traffic cases may be best resolved by giving the defendant a chance to correct the violation. In a suspended license case, for example, “if the license was suspended because they couldn’t afford to pay for their car insurance, the state could look at me and say, ‘I’ll give them 30 to 60 days. If they come back with their license, we’ll reduce the charge to a traffic ticket.’ ”
Civil cases, she said, can be more emotionally challenging.
“In civil,” she said, “the crux of my civil cases are foreclosures, and I have evictions. It’s heartbreaking. It’s heart wrenching. … It’s harder to have someone lose their home than to put them in jai sometimes.”
There, too, though, she said, “I really try to help them do the right thing and come to an amicable resolution of their cases.”
Feld said she keeps in mind that people are often nervous, and she maintains a flexible courtroom style with that in mind.
“My bailiff says ‘all rise,’ and they all rise,” she said. “We try to have them have a dress code. If they come in in a really ratty T-shirt I’ll remind them that ‘If you come back you might want to wear something a little more conservative.’ ”
But she won’t insist that they go change before she’ll hear their case.
“I try to be as accommodating as I can,” she said. “You don’t want to not resolve the case. I am so happy they show up. And if they show up and tell me they have another case in a courtroom next week, I’ll have the bailiff pull the file so they don’t have to come back.”
She likes civil motions filed in advance, and she does have certain rules she likes followed.
“A lack of candor with the court would be a big pet peeve. Disrespect for the court,” she said. “One of my biggest pet peeves for attorneys is if they don’t follow the local rule in PIP cases, which is that they can affirm that they’ve spoken to each other before the hearing to try to work it out.”
Always, though, she said she keeps in mind that she works for the people who come before her.
“I’m serving them.”