Wililam Hoeveler
Wililam Hoeveler (AM Holt)

Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler said after more than three decades on the bench that he planned “to continue to work until they carry me out.”

It may not come to that. Chief U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno in Miami sent a short memo last month reassigning Hoeveler’s 21 cases effective April 1 “pending retirement later this year.”

Appointed by President Jimmy Carter in April 1977, the World War II veteran quickly gained a reputation as a legal scholar. The 92-year-old judge oversaw landmark litigation on Everglades pollution, and he presided at the nine-month drug-trafficking and racketeering trial of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.

Hoeveler also oversaw some of the 2000 hearings on whether 6-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez should be returned to his homeland. A year earlier, he presided over a Port of Miami public corruption trial.

“The truth is he has left his fingerprints all across the district, not just on the Everglades, but on criminal, civil and environmental law,” said former interim U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, now a partner at Lewis Tein in Miami. “When the chips are down, Judge Hoeveler is the guy who comes through.”

Compared to Lincoln

How well-regarded is Hoeveler among members of the Bar in South Florida? Several lawyers compared him to President Abraham Lincoln.

“He acted like Abe Lincoln,” said attorney Aaron Podhurst, a partner at Podhurst Orseck in Miami. “He never raised his voice, and he was a fabulous lawyer, and he was a great trial judge.”

Former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, now a partner with Coffey Burlington in Miami and chairman of the Federal Judicial Nominating Commission in South Florida, said Hoeveler’s name has been invoked repeatedly as the judicial ideal by applicants aiming for a spot on the bench.

“It’s a combination of all the important qualities you want in a judge: intellect, temperament, fairness, graciousness,” Coffey said. “In front of state and federal JNCs, a not infrequent question to candidates is what judge they would consider to be their role model. And his name is heard in response to that question over and over again.”

Hoeveler’s time of the bench has been “marked by a sincere commitment to justice in every case,” said U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer. The judge “has been an inspiration for a generation of lawyers in the Southern District of Florida not only because of his legal acumen but because of his unfailing decency and genuine humility.”

Hoeveler, who suffered a stroke and heart attack while on the bench, has appeared in poor health at judicial events for some time. He now gets around in a wheelchair, often with someone by his side.

Neither Hoeveler nor Moreno returned phone calls for comment Friday.

Congeniality

Those who practiced before Hoeveler or opposed him when he was an attorney also spoke about the judge’s open-door policy and how incredibly friendly he was to all.

Noted defense attorney Roy Black said he believes he holds the distinction of being the only lawyer to earn the wrath of Hoeveler in open court when Black failed to yield to a sustained government objection as instructed during cross-examination of a government cooperator.

“When he yelled, it was so much out of character I almost jumped out of my skin,” said Black, a partner Black Srebnick Kornspan & Stumpf in Miami. “You know you are in deep trouble when Hoeveler yells at you.”

Attorney Frank Rubino, who defended Noriega, said those involved in the trial became almost like family. Rubino’s wife often would send cookies for prosecutors, defense attorneys as well as Hoeveler and Noriega. Hoeveler sentenced Noriega to 40 years in prison but later reduced the sentence.

During trial, Hoeveler’s large dog often greeted lawyers when they walked into his chambers.

“He was always offering you coffee,” Rubino said. “He is such an honest and honorable man and tried so hard to be fair and do the right thing when it came to the government and the defense.”

Hoeveler was criticized for designating Noriega a prisoner of war protected under the Geneva Conventions, making him eligible for benefits including care packages.

After years of Everglades hearings, Hoeveler commented about what he saw as the Florida Legislature’s capitulation to the sugar industry in defying a consent decree to clean up the River of Grass. Those remarks got him removed in 2003 from the Everglades protection case he shepherded for 15 years.

In a 2007 interview with the Daily Business Review, Hoeveler said: “That needed to be said. I was disturbed that our settlement and order pursuant to that was torpedoed by the Legislature after just a few days. And the lobbyists’ role in the matter didn’t please me either.”

Environmental icon

Environmentalist activists consider Hoeveler close to a saint, a judge who helped protect the state’s greatest resources.

“I had the opportunity to sit in his courtroom during the Everglades hearings as he championed its protection. I considered it a privilege,” said Maribel Balbin, president of the League of Women Voters in Miami-Dade County.

Hoeveler set off another environmental debate in 2007 by imposing restrictions for rock mining companies in northwest Miami-Dade County, citing the risk of benzene and bacterial contamination of underground drinking water supplies.

Hoeveler suffered from heart ailments while on the bench. A heart attack postponed Noriega’s trial for only two weeks. A stroke sent Elian’s case to another judge.

Attorney Stuart Z. Grossman, a partner at Grossman Roth in Coral Gables, represented Hoeveler in a lawsuit against Mercy Hospital about a decade ago, blamed a botched procedure for the stroke. The case was settled out of court.

Grossman practiced against Hoeveler before he took the bench and then in front of him as an attorney. He said along with Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, who is still practicing, Hoeveler represented a certain era of legal expertise.

“Judge Hoeveler and King have seen it all, know it all and are very direct, very forthright,” Grossman said. “We will not be a better community for his retirement. It’s a major loss.”