Miami-Dade’s newest chief circuit judge knew she wanted to be a lawyer since she was a little girl. She also knew she wanted to be a University of Miami Hurricane.
It started while Bertila Soto was living in Iowa where her father taught Spanish culture and language at Iowa State University. She didn’t know he had been a public defender in Cuba, or that he wrote the last writ of habeas corpus on the island.
To her, Perry Mason was more of an influence.
"He always won," Soto said. "Everybody flipped and confessed on the stand, and I thought that was phenomenal."
For her, Florida always beckoned — especially the University of Miami.
"I always thought I was going to be a ‘Cane," she said. "When I was in Iowa I dreamed of moving to Miami. My grandmother was here, and I wanted to be in Miami."
When she was about 10, Florida offered an innovative program to certify Cuban lawyers living in exile in two years instead of three. She discovered the truth about her father’s past, and her wish of moving to Miami came true.
Watching her father study for the Bar examination intensified her dream of becoming a lawyer. Her legal training began after her father opened his own practice.
In her words, she was "bottle-fed law. In a good way."
"I was ordered to work for my father at the age of 14," she said. "I started as a receptionist. Then I was a secretary. Then I was the clerk. And I was the bookkeeper. And then I was a law clerk."
Naturally, she only applied to one law school — the University of Miami. She planned to follow in her father’s footsteps.
"I never thought I would be a trial lawyer. I thought I would be a transactional attorney, you know, contracts, PIP, what my dad was doing. I loved being the lawyer that the family went to. I enjoyed that part of my father’s practice."
An internship at the state attorney’s office in Miami-Dade changed that.
"I was bitten by the bug," Soto said. "So when I went back to work with my father, I was never fully happy anymore with just being in an office. I loved the courtroom."
She found it both exhilarating and frightening.
"I teach at the University of Miami, and I always tell my students the anxiety I had before every trial. I was a nervous wreck," she said. "I always felt sorry for my newer lawyers when I was a county court judge. And I enjoyed helping them and talking to them and telling them, ‘It’s OK to be nervous.’ I can understand that. I can completely relate to that."
Soto became a state prosecutor right after law school. Three years later she rejoined her father’s practice. In 1996, she ran for county court.
She was at a gathering when the idea to run struck. "Someone turned to me and said, you should put your name in for that seat. My father was at the table. We looked at each other, and we said, ‘That’s not a bad idea.’ And we never looked back."
She was elected "my daughter’s first day of pre-K."
"I think the hardest transition is missing the courtroom and missing being an advocate," she said. "As a judge you have to look at it all, and you sometimes miss the part of being an advocate, and you have to step back. I think that’s a big challenge for a judge."
Her first assignment put her in the domestic violence division. She moved to drunken-driving cases as a circuit court seat opened up. Then-Governor Jeb Bush appointed her in 2002.
Her courtroom style didn’t change. She still likes to mentor young attorneys who come before her. She doesn’t like them being late. She doesn’t like them talking to each other instead of to the court. She does like the new part of the attorney’s oath that encourages civility.
"I have very little patience for kindergarten behavior in the courtroom," Soto said.
In March, she accepted the ceremonial chief judge’s gavel from her predecessor, Joel Brown. She is the first woman, first Cuban-American and youngest chief judge in the Miami-Dade history.
"I’m a package deal. I’m a Cuban woman. But I’m also I think the hard-working judge that wants to do the right thing for the right reasons," Soto said.
With her came the four bookshelves full of UM football knickknacks, trinkets and baubles — including a bobble-head of the judge with UM’s logo on her bench. There’s also a UM blanket over her chair in her chambers and a judicial robe with UM on it that she only wears for fun, not court.
Brown is a University of Florida Gator.
"When I was coming over he said to me, ‘You know, there’s a rule you can’t have any football paraphernalia in your office,’ " Soto said. "I said, ‘That’s the first AO I’ll rescind. "