Judge Ellen Sue Venzer (J. Albert Diaz)
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ellen Sue Venzer started early. She began University of Miami at 16 and was a budding political campaign manager before she was out of her teens. And, even though she went into law not expecting to practice, she became a judge at 31.
Born in Hollywood, Venzer fell in love with politics in high school.
“I became involved in campaigns through a high school social studies teacher who was a city commissioner,” she said, “and I just loved the process.”
By the time she was in college she found a mentor in lobbyist and power broker Steve Ross and helped run the election bids of former Circuit Judge Amy Steele Donner, Miami Beach City Commissioner Billy Shockett and Miami Beach Mayor Leonard Haber, among others.
“Steve was grooming me to run county commission races,” she said. “I loved it. Loved it. Loved it,” she said.
She went to law school to make her better at running campaigns.
“I figured it would work no matter what I was doing,” she said. “If I was going into politics and advising candidates and running campaigns, what better way to do it than to at least be versed in how the inner workings worked.”
It was there that she met her future stepfather, Judge Richard Feder. He was filling in, teaching a family law class.
“He told me that my presentation was boring,” she said. The next day she learned her mother was going out with him.
He became, she said, “an incredible mentor,” who helped spur her toward a deeper love for the law.
“I started spending time with my stepfather and stepbrother and things just evolved,” she said. “I loved talking about the law with them and arguing over different topics and one thing led to the next.”
Between that and class, she said, she discovered that “I had a love for the drama of the courtroom.”
Feder, she said, “became my stepfather just quick enough to swear me into the bar.”
After graduation, she went to work as a litigation associate. When that firm went under, she moved into lender liability work, “where poor unsuspecting borrowers were being taken advantage of by large financial institutions.” Then, in 1993, she went on her own.
One of her first clients was Capital Bank. The president of the bank called and told her, she said, “I’d rather have you working for us than against us.”
That led to other big clients, including SunTrust Bank. She was barely 30, making money and with a solid practice. But, she said, she felt unfulfilled.
“It was a very exciting, vibrant time, but I figured there had to be more out there than making money,” she said. “I wanted to be passionate about my life, and I wasn’t passionate about other people’s money,”
She put her name in for an open county court seat and won unopposed. It made her, “at the time,” she said, “the second youngest judge in Florida.”
She spent nine years in county court. It was, she said, “a great, great training ground for me. I learned so much. I think I’m a better judge because I had the county experience.”
One of her memorable cases involved a “doggie suicide.” A dog died inside a home after it was tented, and “the tenting company blamed it on the dog wanting to commit suicide because it had been a stray.”
In 2004, then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed her to the circuit bench.
“I try to make it as absolutely pleasant for everyone in my courtroom during calendar,” she said.
Which may explain her seemingly bemused aplomb in a widely shown video of her as a defendant hurled a string of obscenities at her, and then flipped her off.
However, she will by no means hold her tongue if she does have something to say, as she did last year when she angrily chided a caseworker over the handling of a seriously mentally ill man who was bounced around treatment facilities, then escaped from an assisted-living facility.
“I am so disturbed by this,” Venzer said, and ordered representatives from multiple agencies to appear before her to explain. “It sounds like all these different agencies are treating these individuals like hot potatoes.”
It wasn’t the first time Venzer took state agencies to task. In 2005, she called welfare workers’ actions “pitifully short of acceptable,” and held the Department of Children and Families in contempt for not diagnosing and treating an 8-year-old thought to be autistic.
She now presides in criminal court. “In trial it’s a very different formality for me,” she said. She likes all motions in writing and considers attorneys who are unprepared “totally unacceptable.”
“I take due process incredibly seriously,” she said. “I think it’s very important that when a litigant walks out of a courtroom that they know that they may not like the result but that they know that they had a judge who considered their position and took it seriously.”