Judge Betty Capote
Judge Betty Capote (J. Albert Diaz)

Miami-Dade County Court Judge Betty Capote knew she wanted to be on the bench before she finished first grade. She would run through her house banging a wooden mallet, pretending she’d overruled objections.

“I knew I was going to be here one day,” she said. “I just wasn’t sure when.”

She even said so during her interview with Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle for her first job after law school, which turned out to be her only job before her robing.

“I told her,” Capote said, “I am making you a promise right now that I am not leaving the state attorney’s office until I become a judge. And you can have my word on that.”

Born in Miami, Capote credits much of her determination to the inspiration of her family. Her father was one of the Operation Pedro Pan kids, sent out of Cuba to an unknown future to escape Fidel Castro’s communist regime.

“I can’t even imagine now, being older, having to make the decision of sending your child to another country not knowing what’s going to happen to them. There was no communication,” she said. “What a brave man my grandfather was.”

Grit may run in the family. Both her mother and her sister are now attorneys, and Capote remembers being an elementary school student and watching her mother working full-time and going to law school at night. But all that came after Capote had made up her mind about her own career.

“That was definitely an inspiration to me,” she said, “but I already had the idea of being a judge in my head before that.”

Capote remained unwavering, and dedicated to making her dream come true.

In high school, she became president of the speech and debate team, and was nominated for a Silver Knight Award. She attended Florida International University with a focus on business, in preparation for the possibility she might some day run her own firm. And, even though she didn’t know what kind of law she would go into as she worked her way through University of Miami law school, she knew what kinds she wouldn’t.

“There were three things I was never going to do: Tax law, real estate law and criminal law.”

She was wrong. She secured an internship at the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.

“I had never felt so excited and so passionate about any kind of subject matter in my life,” she said. “I came home and I told my parents, ‘I found my calling.’

“I did not expect to have that kind of connection with criminal law.”

She went to work there as soon as she graduated and stayed, just as she had promised in her job interview, for 11 years.

“After I became a prosecutor I stopped thinking about becoming a judge for a while, because I was so happy at the state attorney’s office that I just kind of put it on the back burner.”

She worked her way up to division chief. Then, she put her name in for nomination to the bench.

“I had been prosecuting homicides for about six years,” she said. “You get to a point in anything in life, I think, when you’re ready for new growth and you’re ready for that change.”

Gov. Rick Scott appointed her on her first try in November 2012.

On the bench, she said, she runs “a formal courtroom. I think it’s important to keep that professional decorum in any court. … I will tell them this is not the kind of court you see on television.”

Among her rules, she said:

“I am a stickler on the dress code,” Capote said. “I just mean proper clothing. No pants to your knees with your underwear hanging out. Women have to have their chests covered.”

The prime rule, she said, is, “It’s just about respect in my courtroom. I’ll show you respect. You show me respect.”

Since stepping into the criminal division in the North Dade Justice Center, she has reduced the caseload from 12,000 to 3,000 cases, and the wait to be heard on her motion calendar from 30 days to about one.

“I listen to anywhere from 150 to 200 cases in a day,” she said.

An important aspect of her job, she said, is resolving problems. For example, many of her cases involve traffic violations that come up because of a suspended license. With a Division of Motor Vehicles office on the first floor of the justice center, she said, “It’s like a one-stop shop here.”

She said she’ll frequently send a defendant downstairs to resolve their license issues, and send them home in compliance with the law immediately.

“If I can get you a valid license that day, you’re leaving my courtroom with a valid license.”

While she’s also a stickler about punctuality, she said, time remains one of the biggest challenges.

“I try to take as much time as I can to explain things to people,” she said. “My goal is for everyone to leave here with an understanding of what happened.”