Carlos M. Guzman (J. Albert Diaz)
Monday through Friday, Miami-Dade County Court Judge Carlos Guzman wears a robe. On weekends, he “dresses like a zebra.”
At least during football season when he moonlights as an NCAA football official, sprinting along the sidelines in a black-and-white striped shirt. His daughter said it makes him look like a zoo animal.
He also has worn the smile of a child haircut model, the badge of an FBI agent and a Tigger costume. That last one was at Disney World in college.
Growing up, the New Jersey native considered becoming a master chef. But he started helping his sister, an attorney, with cases and “that piqued my interest.”
It was so unexpected that when he told his family he wanted to go to law school, the looks he got told him they thought, “Oh, my god! He’s having a mental breakdown.”
Guzman applied to the FBI in college, basically because “that seemed cool.” Federal bureaucracies being what they are, he heard nothing back.
When he graduated, he went to work as a prosecutor for the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.
“I knew I wanted to be in the criminal justice system,” Guzman said. “I knew it was a great place to get in and be exposed to court.”
Two years later, the FBI called. He considered it “a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
And it was everything he dreamed. “I wasn’t at the bureau long, but it was a fascinating historical time.”
He was one of the first responders at the World Trade Center on 9/11, then followed up in the investigation. He chased down and stopped white box trucks at gunpoint in search of the D.C. sniper. He wore a hazardous materials Tyvek suit in the search for clues during the anthrax attack on the National Enquirer.
He also worked undercover—dressed as a cabby or a homeless man—and did lots of things he can’t talk about, even years later.
“I liked the idea of being the guy through the door,” Guzman said.
In 2004, he found himself helping ailing relatives in Miami, traveling for the FBI but with no chance of a transfer to South Florida.
He went into criminal defense, working with attorneys such as Milt Hirsch and Rob Klein, who left a lasting mark on how to be a lawyer and a person.
“They taught me the importance of the practice of law—being ethical, of having integrity,” Guzman said. But also “the importance of family.”
It also let him see what it was like to work from the defense side, including an effort with the Innocence Project that led to the release of a wrongly accused Brevard County man who spent more than 20 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit.
About that time, he started officiating at weekend games for extra money. Football was an odd choice for a baseball and hockey fan, but he started with Pee Wee, then Pop Warner, then high school games, then lesser college games, until now when an observant TV viewer might catch him explaining a ruling to an irate coach during an East Coast game.
In 2007 he got a call asking him to become chief assistant statewide prosecutor for the attorney general’s office. His boss at the firm told him, “If you don’t go, I will.”
A few years later, he was at a family Father’s Day gathering when someone asked if he had ever considered becoming a judge. He hadn’t. But he talked with his wife and started applying. It took eight or 10 tries, but Gov. Rick Scott appointed Guzman in November 2012.
Since taking the bench, he said he’s discovered his weekend job makes him a better judge, and vice versa.
“It’s made me more patient. It’s made me a better listener. It’s given me the perspective of ‘let’s work though this,’ ” Guzman said. “It’s me giving them that extra two minutes to get it off their chest, and then me taking that extra two minutes to explain why their side is wrong or why they can’t get what they want. That goes a long way.”
His experience as a state attorney helped as well, “especially with the younger attorneys. … I’ve been there,” he said. “You’ve got to give them more slack. That’s the bottom line.”
That makes him more flexible in the courtroom.
“In terms of how I run things, I can’t tell you it’s a free-for-all, and I’m not going to tell you it’s federal court,” Guzman said. “I expect respect. I expect decorum. I expect you to be there on time. If you’ve got a reason you can’t be there, I’m all ears. If you need a continuance for some reason, I’m going to give it to you.”
And one rule is: “I never bang the gavel.”