Diane V. Ward
Diane V. Ward (J. Albert Diaz)

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Diane Ward might have been an anthropologist, if any of the grad schools she applied to had accepted her.

They didn’t. The University of Miami School of Law did.

That was after she’d gone to live with a family in Iran and almost got stuck there.

In short, her path to the law, and the bench, was anything but conventional. In fact, she applied to law school only after she ran out of money in Panama and wound up as a bartender in Fort Lauderdale.

“I knew I didn’t want to turn 30 tending bar,” she said.

Her unconventional path in life and perhaps her wanderlust may have been in her blood.

The daughter of a stage actor, Ward was born in New York, lived her early years in Boulder, Colo., was in Washington when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and wound up in Pompano Beach as she hit her teens.

She ended up in an experimental program at Nova High School—effectively the kids could study just about anything they wanted to. Or not.

“It was just a wonderful creative time,” she said.

When she graduated, she picked a college as far across the continent as she could get, Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.

See The World

“Early on I figured out that it was a good idea to see as much of the world as possible and never turn down a travel opportunity,” she said.

The school had “a wonderful overseas program,” including the chance to spend a semester in Iran living with a family.

Leaving Iran was the challenge. The family apparently didn’t want her to go. They kept telling her the trains were snowed in. They were and, she found out, would be all winter. So she went from airline to airline trying to find a flight she could afford. There were none.

“I finally got down to Swiss Air,” she said, and realized she didn’t have enough money. “And I just broke down and cried.”

They put her on a flight to London. Her family helped her get home from there.

She kept traveling, tending bar to raise money and heading off to someplace new. That’s how she wound up broke in Panama. She eventually got back to Fort Lauderdale working at a bar. She decided it was time for something different.

She applied to various anthropology programs. As a backup, she also applied to several law schools. Her real hope, though, was to “work with tribes.”

“None of the anthropology schools accepted me, and all of the law schools accepted me,” she said. “So the path was made.”

In law school she landed an appellate internship at the Miami-Dade public defender’s office making $4.19 an hour, and she started watching trials.

She fell in love with criminal defense and stayed at the public defender’s office after graduating.

In 1988, she decided to go out on her own. It was scary. Women criminal defense attorneys were a rarity.

“I had images of what if everything went bad and I’d have to live in my car with my dog,” she said.

Just the opposite happened. She keeps courtroom sketches of some of her memorable cases on the wall in her chambers. One is of her last one, with her husband, Ed O’Donnell, as co-counsel: the high-profile double-murder trial of Kirk Billie.

Billie, a member of the Miccosukee tribe with a history of domestic violence, stood accused of killing his two young sons, ages 2 and 5, by driving an SUV into a canal with them in the back. They drowned. He insisted he didn’t know they were there.

The jury found Billie guilty.

By then, she had been an attorney for 20 years and was ready for a change. She put her name in for the bench several times but didn’t get appointed. In 2002, she ran and won.

South Florida has “the very best attorneys in the state,” , she said. But judges “face an overwhelming workload.”

One of her biggest challenges is “trying to figure out how to give people more access to the courtroom,” Ward said.

When she first moved to the civil division, she said she faced a backlog of 4,500 cases, including 2,500 foreclosures. She got it down to 1,000 foreclosures by working to 9 p.m. every day, she said. “I still like to read the stuff in advance. “

That’s one of the reasons she likes attorneys to deliver motions and briefs that are as “short and to the point as possible.”

And Ward said she knows her criminal law background means she has a “learning curve.”

“I have no problem letting someone know I have no idea what to do with this because I have never seen this before,” she said. “You need to let me know what the law is.”