Sarah Zabel (Aixa Montero)
Attorneys familiar with the judge assigned to a lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on gay marriages say she is perfectly suited for the controversial case challenging a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2008.
Lawyers and former colleagues describe Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel as a jurist who is no stranger to high-profile cases. She is known for thoughtful legal memorandum and giving due time to both sides.
Zabel also drew the assignment in a civil lawsuit filed against bad-boy celebrity Justin Bieber by a paparazzi who claims he was injured by the singer’s bodyguard.
She is also unwittingly in the spotlight because her husband, former North Miami Beach Mayor Myron Rosner, was charged in 2012 campaign financing misconduct involving bus bench ads. His case is pending.
Zabel is running for re-election this year and has received wide support from the legal community, compiling a campaign war chest of more than $80,000, according to state election records.
Attorney Michael Gongora, the first openly gay member of the Miami Beach City Commission, said six couples challenging the state law on constitutional grounds could do far worse than Zabel on this hot-button issue.
“Judge Zabel is a good judge for this case,” said Gongora, a partner with Becker & Poliakoff in Coral Gables. “Before she was a judge, she was a litigator and is familiar with family law. She has handled challenges to state laws before and is fair-minded.”
Gongora said Zabel will be an impartial judge who will look to apply the law and do the right thing. “Of course, I am hopeful she will overturn this discriminatory ban on gay marriage,” he said.
Gongora notes Zabel’s ruling in a challenge to a state law by the residential association at the waterfront Grand Condominium in Miami. Zabel ruled that a mixed-use condominium association could stay in the wake of 2007 legislative change dictating the makeup of such boards. She was upheld on appeal.
Zabel has served in the civil, criminal and juvenile divisions. While in the criminal division, she presided over the case of Jorge and Carmen Barahona, accused of killing a 10-year-old foster daughter in their care and abusing her twin brother.
Zabel insisted the couple be present when a prosecutor announced the state was seeking the death penalty. She also ruled evidence against the couple would be made public, including the couple’s statements to police. The Barahonas still await trial.
“I’ve heard nothing but praise for Judge Zabel throughout the legal community,” said Miami attorney Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney now at Coffey Burlington. “She is very well-regarded for her ability, temperament, diligence and integrity in all the qualities that matter.”
When it comes to ruling on controversial issues, he said it’s important to have a jurist who is expedient and not gun shy.
“Above all, you look for someone with courage,” Coffey said. “These are inherently matters of controversy and often present an opportunity to sidestep the difficult issues rather than confront them head on.”
The marriage lawsuit joins more than 40 others in 25 states looking to establish gay marriage in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court Decision in favor of gay rights last June. The high court by a 5-4 vote struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who was in the minority, wrote: “By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.”
The Miami law filed by the six couples and Equality Florida Institute Inc. seeks to overturn Florida’s constitutional amendment denying same-sex marriage, which voters approved six years ago.
The couples say their due process and equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution are violated by the state ban.
Miami Beach attorney Elizabeth Schwartz, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said diplomatically when asked about Zabel: “Florida’s courts are fair and open-minded. We are confident our plaintiffs will get a fair hearing, and we are optimistic that the courts will strike down these harmful and unconstitutional laws.”
Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida, the state’s leading gay-rights group, was optimistic last month in announcing the lawsuit.
“Anyone who gives this issue a fair hearing and applies the law can only come to one conclusion: It’s wrong to deny same-sex couples and our children the protections that only marriage can provide,” Smith said.
Harvey Ruvin, Miami-Dade clerk of courts, is the defendant since the plaintiffs want his office to issue marriage licenses.
Luis G. Montaldo, Ruvin’s chief general counsel, and Eileen Ball Mata, a Miami partner with Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod, represent the county. Montaldo and Mata did not respond to requests for comment.
In a Feb. 11 response to the litigation, the attorneys said state law for itself on the issue.
Lives on hold
Coffey sees a sea change on the issue of gay marriage in the courts and believes Zabel will put the case at the top of her docket.
“This is an issue that affects so many people who literally may have their lives on hold waiting for the outcome of this case,” he said.
Zabel’s former colleagues, as well as lawyers who have practiced before her, said attorneys on both sides can expect rapt attention from the jurist.
“Every case before her is the most important case,” said Scott Silverman, a former Miami-Dade circuit judge who is now a mediator at JAMS. “She is smart, efficient and very patient. If anybody would expect a knee-jerk reaction on her from a case, they would be disappointed.”
Attorney Bill Seitz, an associate with Mase Lara Eversole, a Miami firm which supports Zabel’s re-election, said he has appeared before the judge in class action, personal injury and commercial cases. When warranted, he said Zabel issues detailed memorandum explaining her rulings.
“She will give both sides an opportunity to state their position, and she will consider the law,” Seitz said. “That doesn’t always happen.”
In the Bieber case, Zabel’s rulings have already made an impact.
She denied Bieber’s requests to stop plaintiffs lawyers from deposing him and asking questions about other incidents involving him and his bodyguards’ allegedly aggressive behavior. The Third District Court of Appeal upheld her ruling last week.
Bieber, 19, is being sued by photographer Jeffrey Binion, who claims Bieber ordered his bodyguard to attack him and take his camera’s data card. In a separate case, Bieber also faces a charge of driving under the influence following an alleged drag-racing incident in Miami Beach.
Zabel was ushered onto the bench in the 2002 election with a number of other new judges. She said at the time that she ran because she wanted to give back to the community and felt she had the right temperament for the bench.
As a prosecutor, Zabel specialized in child support enforcement. As a judge, she initiated a program to collect overdue child support from workers’ compensation settlements.
Duane Morris partner Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, who has appeared numerous times before Zabel and has been involved in civil rights cases, said the judge has more than proven herself as one of the best Miami-Dade judges in the last decade.
“I find her to be always prepared and incredibly smart. She is polite but she is not one of these pushover judges,” Rodriguez-Taseff said. “She is the right kind of judge for a tough case where in the end people feel the decision is arrived at in a well-thought-out manner.”