If Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jose Fernandez had been better at typing, he might be a disc jockey.
“I never ever thought of going to law school or being a lawyer.”
The problem was, he couldn’t pass the typing test to get into journalism at the University of Florida. He returned home and majored in communications at the University of Miami. But when he graduated, another thought struck him.
“I said, ‘What am I going to do, move to the middle of Oklahoma to work at a radio station?’”
He went to law school instead, and fell in love with it.
“It changed me,” he said. “While I was there I interned at the state attorney’s office and I really loved it. … I tried cases in juvenile and really, really enjoyed it.”
He went to work at the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office full-time as soon as he graduated, and quickly discovered a new goal.
“I didn’t always want to be a lawyer, but when I became a lawyer and the first time I walked into a courtroom in this building as a prosecutor I knew I wanted to be a judge.”
He worked in drug court with Hillary Clinton’s brother, and worked his way up through felony and into narcotics.
After five years, though, he left to work with private firms that shaped him not only as a lawyer, but as a judge.
After a brief stint with a civil law firm, he went to work in criminal defense with attorney Richard Essen, who, Fernandez said, “taught me about the practice of law, the business of law.”
In 2002, he went on his own. He wound up teaming up on some cases with Julio Jimenez, who became his mentor as an attorney and, later, as a judge.
“He taught me, I think, the human side of being a lawyer. … He demanded that I treat the clients nicely. He demanded that I return phone calls immediately, to be responsive to them. … The lawyers, too … I’ve tried to transfer that to the bench.”
When Fernandez decided to try to fulfill his ambition of becoming a judge, he put his name in for an appointment – seven times. The Judicial Nominating Committee sent his name to the governor every time, but it never happened.
Then someone he trusted told him “if you really want to be a judge, you have to be willing to run for it.”
When a new seat was created, he did. He won by 12 points, and took a spot on the county bench in 2007.
Three years later, he put his name in for a circuit court appointment. He got it on the first try.
“Becoming a judge is just a huge adjustment,” he said. “People think that if you’ve been a lawyer for a certain amount of time you just put the robe on and you can sit there and do it. You can’t. You have to learn how to manage a caseload … And you’ve got to learn how to deal with the attorneys in front of you.”
His courtroom style, he said, is “informally formal.”
“The only time I require people be formal is if we’re in trial with the jury. Everyone has to be respectful of the trial process.”
Outside of that, he said, he doesn’t even require attorneys to wear ties.
“I take the private attorneys out of turn right away as soon as they walk in a courtroom because usually they have somewhere else to go. The public defender is with me anyway. The prosecutor is there,” he said.
He also defers to the lawyers when it comes to hearing motions.
“Lawyers can call and put things on the calendar for the next day. I don’t have limits on my motion calendar. You have to accommodate them because they’re doing their job.”
That belief in being accommodating influences his courtroom rules.
“I don’t have any standing division orders because I think if you have too many rules, the day you have to make an exception it makes it hard to make an exception.”
Above all, he said, is a guiding principle.
“My philosophy has always been, do the right thing in my heart and in my head and if I do that, then I can sleep at night,” he said.
“There have been cases where I made decisions where I later realized, ‘oh boy, I made the wrong call.’ The next day I’m calling everybody back in and I say ‘Hey, I think I did something wrong here. Let’s talk about this.’
“It’s vitally important if someone is in custody. You don’t want them to spend any extra time in custody based on one of your decisions.”