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U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King first met one of his former law clerks when the man, then a U.S. Coast Guard seaman, was a defendant in his court. The man and a fellow guardsman were caught with a bale of marijuana they found at sea; the deed landed him in a federal penitentiary. While in prison, the man — who King prefers to keep anonymous — decided he wanted to go to law school. He wrote King, asking whether the judge would be a reference. King agreed and wrote a letter to the admissions department on the man’s behalf. Later, as the man struggled through the first grueling year of school, he again wrote to King, and the judge wrote him an encouraging letter. “The first year’s always tough,” he said. Finally, the man wrote to King asking him for a job upon graduation, and King made the former felon his clerk. The man is now one of the most successful personal injury lawyers in Colorado, married to a doctor and, cracks King, “making four times as much I do.” That brand of gentle mentoring might seem surprising, coming as it does from a black-robed jurist so esteemed that a 12-story federal courthouse bears his name. But in the case of King — a man who writes back to every prisoner who writes him — it’s not. King always remembers his hardscrabble roots in the rural Redland area of Miami-Dade County, Fla., where he grew up in a house lacking electricity and running water. “He has never forgotten where he came from,” said Judge Stanley Marcus of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. For that reason, and a host of others, King, 72, received the prestigious Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award at a ceremony held in the stately central courtroom of the United States Courthouse last week in Miami, down the street from the one that bears his name. “He has served diligently and with equality to all,” said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who made the presentation. King was the 18th recipient of the award, named for a former chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Minnesota. Previous recipients include Warren E. Burger, former U.S. chief justice, and Frank M. Johnson Jr., an Alabama federal judge who opposed segregation in the 1960s. The ceremony drew many of the heavy-hitters in South Florida’s federal court system, on hand to pay their respects to King, who last week also celebrated 30 years on the federal bench. Among them: 37 federal judges and magistrates, two federal appellate judges, U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis, and Joe Klock, managing partner of Steel Hector & Davis, a longtime friend. But the most important people who attended, says King, were his two small grandchildren. “They didn’t really know a lot about the early years,” he says. “My kids knew, they put up with the sacrifices we made in terms of lower salaries … so I could do this. So I’m glad my grandkids got to hear about it.” King attended both undergraduate and law school at the University of Florida. Upon graduation in 1953, he served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, returning to Miami Beach in 1955 to join the law firm Sibley & Davis. But his political and leadership abilities were apparent from the start and his resum� reads like the kind of career most lawyers only dream about. From 1962 to 1964, King served as president of the State Junior Bar Section of the Florida Bar. At about the same time, he was appointed by the governor to the State University System’s Board of Regents. In 1964, he was appointed a circuit judge in Miami. From time to time, King recalls, the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court assigned him temporarily to the state supreme court and the 2nd, 3rd and 4th district courts of appeal of Florida. King ascended to the federal bench in 1970, when President Nixon appointed him judge for the Southern District of Florida, the busiest district in the country, stretching from Key West to Fort Pierce. He served as chief judge from 1984 to 1991, becoming one of the few judges to serve out a full seven-year term in that post, a job that necessitates maintaining a full caseload while at the same time handling mountains of court administrative matters. During that period, he oversaw the building of numerous courthouses throughout the district — achieving such success that Congress honored him in 1996 by naming the premiere federal courthouse in Miami after him. In 1971, Chief Justice Burger tapped King, along with four other judges, to travel to London and study the English magistrate system. The group helped institute such a system in the United States, thus freeing up judges to try cases and reducing three-year-old cases by 50 percent. With a reputation for being tough on crime, the judge is especially liked by prosecutors. Indeed, King was so feared by drug dealers that in the 1980s, the Black Tuna Gang, intent on moving their trial from Miami to Washington, D.C., offered an organized crime family $1 million to assassinate him. The FBI uncovered the plot in the middle of the trial and placed King and his family under 24-hour protection. Those were trying times, King recalls. “You even had to take the marshals with when you went Christmas shopping. You had to take them everywhere,” he says. But King tried to rule with fairness and compassion above all else. In 1980, for example, he ruled that boatloads of Haitian immigrants were entitled to individual hearings before the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a decision upheld in appellate court. Despite his common touch, King is supremely powerful, and few contradict him. “When you’re in his courtroom, it’s known as the ‘King-dom,’ ” said one Miami lawyer who declined to be identified. “ You follow his rules. You learn very quickly to make your argument but back off if he doesn’t agree. Still, I’d rather be in his courtroom than almost any other.” When he became senior judge in 1992, King could have stopped taking cases and still have drawn his full salary. Yet he continues to carry the full caseload of an active judge, often traveling to Key West to hear cases there. In 1999, for example, he completed 54 civil and criminal trials, more than twice the national average for an active judge. His total to date: 2,000 trials and counting. Retired Chief Judge Edward Davis recalled how, while serving on the bench with King, he noticed a blue car in the parking lot that was there at all hours and never seemed to move. Thinking it was abandoned, he called the marshal to tow it. “I’ll tow it, but you’ll have to answer to Judge King,” replied the marshal. “It’s his car.” Even today, “he is the first judge in the building and the last one to leave,” said Judge Peter Fay of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who was sworn in on the bench the same year as King. And, ever the mentor, King still spends long hours advising new judges, showing them “where the land mines were buried,” says Marcus — just as he did when Marcus was drafted to become a U.S. attorney in Miami. “He has committed his life to the federal courts and the pursuit of justice,” adds Marcus. “He is an honest and decent son of Florida.”

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