As a newly arrived child from Cuba, Mily Rodriguez-Powell used to throw up every morning before school. By the time the Broward circuit judge got to the University of Miami, she had mastered English, overcome her fears and discovered a love for the law.
She came to Miami from Havana at 6 on one of the early Freedom Flights. The family moved to Hialeah, where one of her uncles operated a catering business. Even though she had been in second grade in Cuba, the school put her in first grade because she couldn’t speak English.
"I threw up every morning because I was so nervous going to school," she said. But the nuns at her Catholic school "were very kind and, six months into it, it was all in the past."
Rodriguez-Powell was leaning toward a law career when in high school but still wasn’t certain when she started at Florida International University. One course helped make up her mind.
"One of the most impressive courses I took was business law," she said. "Then I knew that I found it fascinating."
That was key and became the advice she gives her college-age children and kids she mentors.
"I always tell them, ‘Whatever you do, whatever you get the best grades in because you find it fun and fascinating … you should really follow that and see where it takes you because chances are that if you like it, you’re going to do well in it.’ "
In her last year at the University of Miami law school, she interned with U.S. District Judge Eugene Spellman. Rodriguez-Powell got to see criminal and civil cases, and she learned to write opinions.
Still, she hadn’t decided on a practice area by the time she graduated. "Lo and behold, you graduate, and you put your resume out there, and you see what happens."
Rodriguez-Powell landed at a firm where she did workers’ compensation trials and appeals. After a couple of years, two friends starting a firm asked her to join them. They did criminal defense work, and so did she. She also continued to handle some of her workers’ compensation clients. After five years, she changed firms to head the workers’ compensation division at the law office of Peter Stassun.
‘Where I Want To Be’
In 1995, then-Governor Lawton Chiles appointed her as a compensation claims judge. As her third four-year term was ending, she put her name in for reappointment. About the same time, a spot opened on the circuit bench. She put her name in for that, too.
"I was fortunate enough that Governor (Jeb) Bush picked the circuit judge paperwork," she said.
Rodriguez-Powell began in January 2006 and asked to go into dependency court. "I thought, what better place to start than somewhere where you can do some good for abused and neglected children," she said.
A year later she moved to criminal court and after three years asked to switch to the civil division, where she remains.
"I like to do different things," she said.
When Rodriguez-Powell is off the bench, she’s likely to be found scuba diving with her husband, a federal prosecutor. She’s done the blue holes of San Salvador, Bahamas, a lot of drift diving and encountered some sharks.
In the courtroom, she said she prefers keeping things formal.
"I’m comfortable with that setting. I’m comfortable with the rules. I want legal objections. That way everybody knows what to expect," Rodriguez-Powell said. "I find my trials go very smoothly. I wouldn’t call it rigid, but in terms of do I have a process? I do."
She considers pretrial meetings important and hates eleventh-hour delays for routine or foreseeable matters that interfere with the scheduled start of trials.
"One of the things that aggravates me to no end is to have a jury out in the hallway because someone didn’t file a motion and is bringing it at the last minute, and it’s not an emergency thing that you couldn’t have brought before," Rodriguez-Powell said. "If we have anything, let’s bring it up on Monday. That way at 10 o’clock in the morning (Tuesday) we can call the jury in, and we’re not going over jury instructions, and we’re not going over labeling exhibits. We’re ready to receive these people and start our trial."
The aggravations don’t take away from her passion for her job.
"To this day, every day I walk in here, I know this is where I want to be," she said. "I think the biggest reward for me is to know I’ve listened to whatever dispute there was between two people or two sides, and I’ve been able to give them a conclusion to it. … I think it’s important that people that have disputes, who see things different ways, to have finality to that problem that’s bothering them."