Broward Circuit Judge Carlos Rebollo fell in love with the law thanks to Brother Conway.
Conway was one of the Christian brothers who taught at the all-boys Catholic high school where Rebollo grew up in Newark, New Jersey. Conway held a J.D. degree, but had taken the vows of celibacy and poverty of his order. He took his students on a field trip to the courthouse where the class watched a murder trial.
Rebollo was hooked.
“One woman stabbed another one over a boyfriend type of situation,” Rebollo recalled. “It was fascinating. I wrote a paper about it, and I got an A-plus. Brother Conway was impressed with it, and that’s what got it started.”
Born in Havana two days before Fidel Castro marched into town and seized control of Cuba, Rebollo left the island nation when he was 3. His family ended up in New Jersey, in Newark’s East Ward.
“Folks who grew up there like myself, we called it ‘Down Neck,’ ” he said. “It’s a thing of pride when you talk about people from Newark and you say you’re from Down Neck.”
After high school, he wanted to stay close to home. He got a degree in political science at Rutgers University in Newark. When he was turned down by Rutgers Law School, however, he went to Iowa, to Drake University Law School in Des Moines on a scholarship. There, he loaded up on classes in criminal law.
Three years later, he was back in New Jersey, doing mostly criminal defense work in a three-lawyer firm. A year later, a clerkship with the equivalent of a circuit court judge led to a position with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.
In two years there, he tried 20 felony trials to verdict. But in 1988, the prosecutor who hired him was out. Soon after, so was Rebollo.
By then, most of his family had moved back to be with relatives in Miami. Rebollo followed.
“I literally moved down here without a job,” he said.
He wound up taking a job as a prosecutor in Broward, and worked there 19 years.
Like many prosecutors, Rebollo started in county court. Three months later he moved up to the felony trial unit. Three years later, he was a supervisor and was handling his first first-degree murder trial. He left there to go to the career criminal unit and, 6½ years later, to organized crime and gangs. He finished his time in the office in the homicide unit.
In 2007 he went into private practice as a criminal defense attorney. That lasted just four months before he was appointed to the circuit bench by Governor Charlie Crist.
His friend, criminal defense attorney Alberto Milian, suggested he submit his name. Milian said he thought Rebollo had the experience, knowledge, judgment and temperament for the job, “but more importantly, I also thought he would be a great addition as far as diversity for our bench. Even though we have a lot of fine judges in Broward County and we’ve had a lot of fine judges throughout the years, we haven’t always had a lot of Hispanic judges reflecting the growing Hispanic community.”
Rebollo began in juvenile dependency, where he had zero experience.
“I remember going in on the first day and telling the attorneys, I’m here to learn,” he said, “feel free to teach me. But if you mislead me once, you’re done. Fortunately I didn’t have any problem with anyone ever misleading me.”
After two years there, he was comfortable, but asked to go to the criminal division. “I wanted to go because for someone who had so much experience in criminal, I was looking forward to seeing what it was like from this side of the bench”
He doesn’t let his prosecutor background affect his rulings.
“I try to be right down the middle, and I’m sure I’ve been criticized from the state’s side and from the defense side. So that means I’m doing my job,” he said. “I look at every case individually. I let both sides have the opportunity to be heard fully.”
That goes for written filings, as well.
“I don’t care how much they present. I will read everything they present. I’ll go through it thoroughly. What I do is I close my door. So there’s no distractions, and I just delve into it,” he said. “The fact that they want to submit ‘War and Peace,’ that’s fine with me. I don’t care.”
He also does his own research and writes his own orders.
“I’ll stay here on a Friday night to 11 o’clock writing out a ruling denying a motion or granting a motion, because that’s what I like to do. I do my own work. We have staff attorneys, but I rarely use the staff attorneys to do my orders. I do that myself.”
In the end, he said, “I’m like an umpire. I call balls and strikes at a call at the way I see it. And I try to do what’s fair and what’s right. That’s how I decide cases.”