Broward Circuit Judge Michael Kaplan is the son of a judge, and they once shared chambers.
Broward Circuit Judge Michael Kaplan didn’t intend to follow his father to the bench, and he has the Journal of Physical Chemistry paper to prove it.
That makes him almost certainly the only circuit judge with his name on a hydrocarbon research article about vacuum-ultraviolet photolysis of trans- and cis-1, 2-dimethylcyclopropanes.
It was one of two he helped with during postgraduate studies in biochemistry — before law school. “I found that a few years ago, and I started reading it, and I have to admit I didn’t understand half of what I had written,” he said.
Kaplan is the son of former Broward Circuit Judge Stanton Kaplan, who never let the crippling polio that left him in a wheelchair slow him down even when he had to struggle up the courthouse steps because there was no Americans with Disabilities Act-approved ramp.
The word disabled “didn’t really apply to him,” his son said. In fact, Michael Kaplan said of his recently deceased father, “He was the most active parent on the block — more than all the able-bodied. He was out there throwing baseballs and footballs and shooting basketballs.”
The son, however, liked science and math. He graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and minors in biology and sociology.
“I had no plan at all to follow in my father’s footsteps,” he said. “I enjoyed math, and I enjoyed sciences. Those were the subjects I was good at in school, so my thought was either a career in chemistry or medicine, or maybe engineering.”
It didn’t happen. He applied to a few medical schools but didn’t get in. “It made me start to question whether that’s what I wanted to do.”
His dad suggested law school. “He said, ‘You know, I think you’d be good at it. I think you’ll enjoy it,’ ” the younger Kaplan recalled. “I did very, very well on the LSAT, so I guess I did have an aptitude for it. I guess he was right.”
He felt, though, that it was the diametrical opposite of what he studied before.
“The transition was difficult. You went from an area or a field of practice and study where things had to be very precise. There was a correct answer to everything. It was either right or wrong, yes or no. Then you enter the field of law where there’s really no such thing in most cases. It’s a matter of degree and persuasion and perception,” he said. “It took me a while to get used to it.”
‘Formal But Relaxed’
After graduation he went to work for the same attorney who hired his father out of law school, practicing personal injury, insurance litigation and family law. He went from associate to partner before he was appointed a magistrate in 1995. In 2002, he ran for circuit judge and won.
“I guess that’s probably the point where the influence of my father was most considered or felt because he had always enjoyed being on the other side of the bench,” Kaplan said. “And I got to see things from his perspective by going to court frequently and sitting and watching and talking to him.”
His office was once his father’s chambers. They even split it into two offices and shared it while his father served as a retired judge, and they lunched together.
“I think my judicial style if you will is similar to my personal style. It’s somewhere in between the way my father was and what he taught me and the way my mother was and what she taught me. My father was very formal,” Kaplan said. “I like things to be formal with regard to the litigation, the attorneys, with the litigants, the parties. With regards to court staff and during breaks, I’m very informal. I like to be personal with everybody, and I consider myself one of a group of people who are working together to get the work done. So my judicial style if you will would be kind of a formal but relaxed in certain respects.”
He now serves in family court, which he said calls for a more informal approach because more people represent themselves.
“Most people these days — most — are not represented by counsel,” he said. “So they don’t know what is required of lawyers. They don’t know what formal practice is. To get them to comply with the judge’s idea of formal practice would be virtually impossible. You’d spend more time dealing with that. I just don’t think it’s functional and productive.”
The pro se cases present a new set of challenges.
“I find that to be one of the most difficult decisions to make every day: how far to go in giving information that one party could utilize because you have to remain neutral. And so, to the extent that you’re helping one party, it can be said that you might be hurting another or assisting one party. That to me is one of the hardest lines to walk each day.”