Michael Orlando
Michael Orlando (Melanie Bell)

Broward Circuit Judge Michael Orlando has been on “The Tonight Show,” or at least his name has.

His moment of national celebrity came after a 21-year-old Coral Springs man who appeared before him allegedly stole Orlando’s nameplate and posted a picture of himself holding the stolen plaque under his chin on his girlfriend’s Facebook page.

“The nameplate is like only $40, not that big of a crime, but what an idiot. He puts it on Facebook,” Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti said at the time.

The Associated Press picked up on it. Then Jay Leno. Orlando’s phone started ringing.

“That was apparently a big deal. I got calls from across the country from friends of mine,” the judge said. “I have a friend who lives in Seattle; he called me. I’ve got relatives who live in Alaska; they called me. A friend in Boston called me. Apparently it went nationwide.”

Orlando’s perspective: “I can only hope that that doesn’t go down as one of my most defining moments. My claim to fame, so to speak.”

It wasn’t his only brush with fame. Orlando went to St. Thomas University for law school when students were mingled fairly freely with Miami Dolphins football players holding practice sessions at the school.

“My roommate and I used to shag punts for Reggie Roby,” he said.

That wasn’t why he chose the law school, he said. It was just “one of the perks.”

Trial Experience

Even though his father was an attorney and later a Broward County court judge, that wasn’t what led Orlando into the law.

He went to the University of Florida and studied criminal justice, thinking he might end up as a police detective.

“It wasn’t until my last year in college that I developed a real love for the law and Socratic method,” he said. “I just kind of fell in love with it and excelled at it, and that’s really kind of when I honed in on what I wanted to do.”

His father’s advice proved very useful.

“My father was very influential in my life,” Orlando said, “and we did a lot of talking about my career and what would be good for it.”

He went to work for the Broward state attorney’s office as soon as he graduated, gathering valuable trial experience.

“I was in court every day,” he said. “I learned a lot. I learned from the best.”

Orlando left after two years for private practice. He worked for a couple of insurance defense firms before striking out on his own in 1997.

“I did everything from probate and guardianship to insurance work to criminal defense,” he said.

About that time, he also was named a traffic magistrate. He eventually was named Broward’s administrative traffic magistrate before he left to take the bench. During that time he also volunteered in the guardian ad litem program.

“The practice of law is a privilege, and we’re often encouraged to give back to the community,” he said. “I understand that the practice of law is something that I do, but Broward County is the place that I live. And one of my personal mantras is that you have to give back to make a place the best place for everybody.”

Juvenile Assignment

In 2002, after 14 years as an attorney, Orlando won election to the bench and was assigned to the juvenile division.

“I knew very little about juvenile law, so I had to get up to speed very quickly,” he said. “But as I did I gained a real … love for this separate criminal justice system that we have for kids.”

It puts him in contact with young defendants and young attorneys.

“A great majority of the cases are with the public defender’s office. They get to really understand the kids, where they are coming from. A lot of them are repeat offenders so the lawyers know what their issues are. And their other issues at home. And they try to address what will work with the child,” he said. “In other words, we’re not just handing out five-, 10-, 15-year prison sentences.”

The nature of juvenile court makes prosecutors, defense attorneys and the judge part of a team, in a way, “but still at arm’s length,” Orlando said.

“Everybody has their respective roles, but you also have to be a little bit of a social worker as well. There’s a lot of other factors to come into it that are unique to juveniles,” he said. “For me it’s very rewarding when you understand what works, and then you see a success story.”

Orlando said he often invites attorneys into his chambers to mentor them and help them know his expectations in the courtroom.

“I try to be predictable,” he said. “I don’t try to make this entirely subjective. I want them to understand what they can expect. I think that they can do a better job if they have a better understanding of how they can get better and exactly what I need to rule in their favor.”