Broward County Court Judge Robert Lee
Broward County Court Judge Robert Lee (Melanie Bell)

Broward County Court Judge Robert Lee spent weekends growing up making so many tortillas in his mother’s Mexican restaurant he lost count.

“She was a firm believer in child labor,” he said. “On the weekend we needed to go make, it seemed like thousands of tortillas to a kid. We hated it. We didn’t mind working in the restaurant but we hated that kind of rote work.”

The law, he said, was “a fluke.”

Born in San Francisco, Lee’s career Navy father brought the family to Jacksonville when the judge to be was 4. His parents separated when he was 7 and his mother went into business for herself, relying on recipes from her homeland.

“My mother started the first Mexican restaurant in Jacksonville. That’s the business we had growing up,” Lee said. And he and his four siblings were expected to pitch in. “We all learned how to cook and run the register and clean and do it all. That’s how we grew up.”

Lee went to college to be a teacher. He went to school full time and worked full time.

“I left the family business and managed a restaurant for somebody else,” he said.

As he neared graduation, his college adviser asked him to take the Graduate Record Exam. Having kids pass made the school look good, he explained. Lee took the LSAT instead.

“I did not study for it at all, and I did quite well,” he said. So well, in fact, that even though he was already teaching second- and fifth-grade classes for kids with learning disabilities, his adviser told him, “You owe it to yourself to go to law school if you score this well.”

Lee did. At University of Florida. It was an awakening.

“I had never even met a lawyer in my life,” he said. “I didn’t know the difference between a plaintiff and a defendant.”

He kept working summers to pay his way.

“I worked on a popsicle assembly line in Jacksonville. I worked in the Port of Jacksonville unloading cars from freighters and cleaning them in the 100-degree heat in the summer,” he said. “Any job I could find I worked. That’s molded me, too, as a judge, because I know I expect people to do things. Life is tough. It’s tough out there. But you need to work hard. You can do it.”

When he graduated, he still didn’t know what kind of law he wanted to practice, but he got an offer from a Miami firm that said that was fine. They were hiring eight graduates and said, “We’ll let you meet everybody and decide,” Lee said. “I decided I wanted to work for the nicest team. That’s exactly how superficial it was.”

He wound up in real estate development. It became his specialty—real estate litigation—and his career, lasting through 12 years and four firms, until he took the bench.

Becoming a judge, too, was, in some ways, a fluke.

The American Family Association launched a petition drive to prevent any Florida county or city from enacting gay-right laws. Lee stepped in pro bono. He wound up working with Nova Southeastern University to author the brief that went to the state Supreme Court, which found the petition unlawful.

“I did it because I was concerned at first that nobody else would do it,” he said. “I remember thinking, … ‘if we’re going to try to rely on parties trying to persuade voters it’s not going to work. We have to win this in the courts.’ ”

After the Supreme Court victory, people encouraged him to put in for a nomination to the bench.

“I think that that’s what got the attention of the governor’s office when I applied to be a judge,” he said. When he was appointed, on his fourth try, he said he learned from the governor’s office that “Lawton Chiles had never knowingly appointed a gay person to a position and he thought it was time. And he felt that if not Broward County, where?”

That was 1997. Three years later, he was thrust into national attention as the canvassing board chairman in the hand recount of the contested election results between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Looking back, he said: “I’m glad I was younger and had more stamina.”

Lee now serves as the chair of the county court civil division and has presided over some 25 jury trials in circuit court as well.

In the courtroom, he said, “I think I’m pretty formal. I’m the kind of judge I think I would’ve wanted to appear before. And when I was in practice the thing that frustrated me most as an attorney was when a judge didn’t enforce what he set out as the ground rules.”

Which is why he constantly reminds lawyers that “an order is not a recommendation or suggestion. It’s an order. And if I order something I expect you to do it.”