Judge Valerie R. Manno Schurr, 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida.
Judge Valerie R. Manno Schurr, 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida. (J. Albert Diaz)

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Valerie Manno Schurr had been a nurse for a dozen years when she passed the Florida Bar exam. She kept working in the operating room.

“One day we had a new surgeon come in, and they said, ‘You know there’s a lawyer in the room. You better be careful,’ ” she said. After the operation, “the head nurse came to me and said, ‘You know you made that guy very nervous. He didn’t like that there was a lawyer in the room.’ ”

The Miami Beach native pursued nursing right after graduating from North Miami High School, urged on by her sister, who was already a nurse.

“I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do, and she said, ‘Why don’t you go to nursing school? It’s a great job. You’re going to love it.’ ” Manno Schurr recalled. “And I did. I really did. Nursing is a wonderful, wonderful profession.”

She started in oncology at Mount Sinai Hospital.

It was emotionally trying. Her mother died of breast cancer at 37 when Manno Schurr was 5. Caring for cancer patients took its toll.

“You’re just trying to prolong their lives,” she said. “I wanted to take care of a patient, get them better and never see them again. These people kept coming back and coming back. They come in. They get diagnosed. You give them chemo, and they would get worse and worse and worse.”

Even though some were cured, she said the work was still painful for her. After two years, she got reassigned to the intensive care unit, then the recovery room. “Then I got cross-trained to work in the operating room,” Manno Schurr said.

“I did paperwork. I’d get the patient from the holding area, check the band—’Are you so and so? Are you having this surgery?’ You have to make sure that everybody knew what we were doing,” she said.

She served as the operating room’s official historian and monitor, recording every event and keeping track of every instrument and piece of equipment used.

“I would do: Time patient in the room. Time patient on the table. Anesthesia started at this time. The time of the first incision,” she said. “And then when they would start to close, I had to count everything.”

The operation couldn’t end until every item was accounted for, down to every single sponge—even if it meant, as she once did, getting down on her hands and knees and searching under the operating table to find it.

Dual Career

In 1989, she said, “I started getting restless. I just wanted to do something else. I knew a bunch of people that were at UM law school. … Actually, we went to the law school, and I sat in the back of the room. They didn’t say anything. They let me do it. And I said, ‘I think this is very cool. I think I want to do this.’

“The next thing I know,” she said, “I’m a law student.”

Manno Schurr kept working as a nurse and as a clerk at a law firm steps from the Flagler Street courthouse.

“I went to night school, and I had a job Saturday and Sunday that I worked from 7A to 7P” in the ICU units at local hospitals, she said. “I went to school at night.”

After Manno Schurr graduated, she said, “It took me a couple of years to get a job.” When she did, her years of experience in hospitals paid off.

“I got a lot of work doing medical malpractice,” she said. “That’s what people wanted me to do.”

In 1996, she left to form a general civil litigation practice with her husband. In 2004, she ran for county court and lost. She ran again for circuit court in 2006 and won.

“I loved being a nurse,” she said. “I loved being a lawyer. Now I’m here, and I love it. I’m very happy.”

Still, she kept her nursing license active until just a couple of years ago, and she keeps her nursing honor society pin in her chambers. And she said her years of nursing still pay off in the courtroom, in more ways than one.

“I’ve been in every division. I started off in dependency; I went to criminal and civil. When I was over there in civil and I was trying a medmal case and the doctor was testifying on the stand, it was great because I knew everything that was going on,” she said.

Now in the family division, Manno Schurr said: “Everybody who’s on the bench, all of us, we bring to this job all of our experiences in life, and it makes you a better judge. I think that being a nurse gives me a lot of compassion, especially in this division. It gives me a lot of compassion for people.”

Like many of the judges, she said, she might someday teach, but not necessarily at a law school. She said she’d rather teach nursing.