handout received 5/2014 Dawn V. Denaro is a judge on the Miami-Dade County Court, 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida. ()
Having a high-profile criminal defense attorney for a dad didn’t persuade Miami-Dade County Court Judge Dawn Denaro to become a lawyer. His powers of persuasion did.
She planned on becoming an art historian.
“I really wanted to be a scout for art talent,” she said.
The Albany, N.Y., native grew up in Miami in what eventually became an entire family of attorneys including her mother, father and brother. But inspired by a humanities teacher at Palmetto Senior High School, she found a fascination with art, particularly Spanish and Mexican painters such as Diego Velazquez, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. She even spent two summers in Mexico City studying art and graduated from Tulane University with a degree in art history.
Her father, Jack Denaro, a former law partner of Roy Black and the defender of cocaine cowboy Sal Magluta, never discouraged her. But she said, “My father and I took very long vacations in Europe.” That gave him time to slowly persuade his daughter about the advantages of a legal career.
“I think it’s what he always wanted for his children,” she said.
It worked. She came back from one of their trips and took the LSAT.
“He was a great persuader,” she said.
She got her law degree at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Michigan and, like her father and brother before her, found her calling in the courtroom.
“I guess I was destined to be an attorney,” she said.
She never lost her love of art, though. Now, in addition to the time she spends gardening, as a Big Sister and with her own daughter, she said, “I’m a collector,” gathering a variety of realist, impressionist and abstract works that catch her eye.
When she graduated from law school she was offered a job at the Clearwater public defender’s office and an unpaid internship at the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. She took the prosecutor position and wound up staying there for 18 years.
“I loved the job,” she said. “It was fun, exciting, intellectually challenging. … I was just one of those attorneys who was always smiling.”
She started with juvenile court cases and worked her way through domestic but spent nearly 13 years in homicide. Overall, she tried close to 100 circuit court cases and eventually became a supervisor overseeing younger attorneys and thousands of cases.
Then, she said, “I felt like it was the right time. I had done everything I wanted to do in the state attorney’s office.”
She put her name in for a nomination. It had been a desire from early on, she said, as she went into courtrooms and saw how judges handled cases.
“I used to dream of being a judge,” she said. “I’d watch and think, ‘I want to be like them some day.’ ”
In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott appointed her to the county bench.
Between her jobs as a prosecutor and now judge, she said, “I really grew up in the Richard Gerstein building.”
Which made for an easy transition.
“From early on it has been easy for me to see both sides and really have command of the issues and the courtroom,” she said. “I think my background prepared me for the bench, and having a father who’s a criminal defense attorney helped. I think both experiences prepared me for being a judge.”
They also impacted her courtroom style.
“I’m a very trial active judge,” she said. “I love the interaction with the jury.”
But, she added, “I think I run an efficient courtroom. We move at a good pace. I think cases have a beginning, a middle and an end, and you need to keep that in mind as you move them along.”
She’s also flexible.
“It’s certainly preferable to have everything in writing,” she said, “but given the volume of cases we have, I understand that can’t happen all the time. I have very good state attorneys and public defenders assigned to my courtroom. They know when it’s important to put it in writing.”
She’s similarly accommodating with her calendar.
“If there’s a private attorney involved, I take them out of order, because time is money,” she said.
She does have one rule she absolutely doesn’t like attorneys to break.
“Don’t interrupt each other,” she said. “I tell them, ‘There’s only one record. There’s only one court reporter. She can’t write down what you’re both saying if you’re both talking at the same time. So don’t interrupt.’ ”