Looking back, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge David C. Miller seemed destined to go into law. He is the son of a successful workers' compensation defense attorney who instilled a high regard for public service, and he had already filed suit -- twice -- by the time he was 20.
The first time he was 16. He bought a stereo. When he got it home, it didn't work. The store refused to exchange it or give him a refund. He sued. He won. He got the refund.
In college, a landlord refused to return his security deposit. Miller took him to court. The landlord paid.
Both cases, he said, were driven by his innate thirst for justice. "I either had to become a lawyer or keep a lawyer in my pocket. And I never thought I'd have enough money to keep a lawyer in my pocket at all times."
After growing up in Coral Gables, Fla., he went to the University of Florida planning on being an orthodontist. Calculus and chemistry dissuaded him. He finished his undergraduate degree in advertising.
Advertising taught him two things that proved valuable in the courtroom -- how to "sell an idea" and how to make storyboards, which he used to help jurors focus on the important facts.
Before law school, though, he eloped with his high school sweetheart, Marilyn, and they had their first son. They lived with his parents for a year, and he explored a variety of occupations -- working with a demolition crew on Miami Beach, operating a punch press in a Hialeah, Fla., toy factory ("It was unnerving. Bam! Bam! Bam! All day long") and as a roofer spreading tar under the South Florida sun.
"That year did two things for me," he said. "One, it gave me a little money to start law school. But number two, it gave me the incentive to study once I got to law school."
He got his law degree from Nova Southeastern University in 1979.
His career began with real estate and litigation work at a Broward County, Fla., firm that closed six months after it hired him. He worked briefly at a Hialeah civil firm, then went on his own for six months before landing at Liberty Mutual.
A year-and-a-half later he moved to the firm where he would spend the next 20 years, become an equity partner and find the mentor he calls, aside from his father, "the best thing that ever happened to me."
'WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?'
That mentor has even greater praise for Miller.
"David was an instinctive trial lawyer," said professional liability defender Rob Klein of Klein, Glasser, Park, Lowe & Pelstring in Miami. "He has the instinct for understanding and always did what would appeal to a jury and what they would latch onto."
At Stephens, Lynn, Klein & McNicholas, Miller became known for his "open file" style. "I handled litigation like you would handle five-card stud poker -- everything was on the table. If you could beat me, beat me. But I don't think you can beat me."
As he tells juries today, his father's words echoed in his mind. "My father would come home almost every night, and when he walked through the door he would ask my brother and I, 'What have you done for society today?'"
In 2000, he ran for circuit judge and won.
He spent five years in criminal court, earning the unflattering nickname "Maximum Miller" for his perceived sentencing practices. He bristles at the memory. "Some of them were minimum," he said.
Still, he said he feels more at home in the civil division, where he is now. Among the courtroom practices he has implemented are a summer dress code -- no ties or jackets required -- and no calls to rise when he enters.
It's part of his desire to make the courtroom more comfortable and more accessible. He has worked weekends, holidays and given up vacations; is in before 7 a.m. preparing; and is available for emergency hearings every day. "Everybody has my cell number."
Miller also initiated the practice of letting jurors ask questions during trial. The questions come in writing. The judge and the attorneys agree at sidebar if it should be allowed. If it gets asked, the attorneys get follow-ups. So do the jurors. And so on, until there are no more questions.
"If a judge needed to ask questions before deciding things, he could," Miller said. "Why not the jurors?"
He remains a traditionalist, though, about court filings.
"I'm not on e-courtesy. I do like getting things to read in advance because then I can generally start the hearing off with a question on an issue I'm particularly focused on as a result of reading both sides."
He also invites motions for rehearings and is known for changing his mind even without nudging. "I've called lawyers the very next day and said, 'You know, I slept on that last night, and I was wrong.'"