Marisa Tinkler-Mendez.
Marisa Tinkler-Mendez. (J. Albert Diaz)

As she headed to law school, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez packed a precious memento—her bowling ball.

Later, it was stolen from her boyfriend’s car. She married him anyway.

Bowling was just one of many sports for Manalapan High School’s scholar-athlete of 1978.

“I’m raised as my father’s son,” she said. “I played every sport. … I was the only girl on the block with a wool New York Mets authentic baseball uniform.”

Tinkler Mendez played softball in the regional girl’s league, kickball and tennis, which she still plays.

And bowling. She even made it to the New Jersey state championships, which is why the bowling ball she took to law school was so important. It was the one that carried her to a score of 298.

Born in Brooklyn, Tinkler Mendez grew up in Englishtown, N.J.

Her father was an attorney and later a judge, and her mother a court reporter. Still, Tinkler Mendez aimed for a career in medicine with her bachelor’s degree in biology.

“I questioned a lot of things. And I got very interested during high school in the sciences,” she said. “My thoughts were, ‘What will I be able to do as an adult that will be fulfilling and feel as if I’m contributing and I’m making a positive impact on the people around me?’ ”

A medical career also fit the philosophy her parents taught her: “Do good, be good, and do the best that you can.”

And one other thing: “Quitting wasn’t really an option.”

Pounded The Pavement

In college, she was on the tennis and crew teams. She graduated on the dean’s list on a pre-med track. Then she took the medical school entrance exam. She didn’t do well, and it made her rethink her career path.

Her parents suggested law.

“I didn’t know if I was going to practice law by going to law school,” she said. “But I wanted to continue with my education.”

She went to Suffolk Law School in Boston and got engaged. After graduating, she moved to Miami without a job but with her husband-to-be.

“Every day for three weeks he would drop me off downtown,” Tinkler Mendez said. “And I pounded the pavement the old-fashioned way. I went door to door.”

One of the doors she knocked on belonged to the firm of Black & Furci. That weekend she went home for her wedding dress fitting. The phone rang. It was Frank Furci, offering a job.

She wound up working for Roy Black, drafting motions, briefs, “any pleadings—do the research, do the drafting.”

In 1993, she started her own firm doing criminal defense, trial, appellate and post-conviction work in state and federal courts. She was a special assistant public defender, taking on appointments for indigent defendants, and a federal Criminal Justice Act attorney handling appellate and post-conviction appointments for indigent federal defendants.

In 2006, the governor created three new seats on the bench. Tinkler Mendez was going through a divorce and running her business when she decided to run.

“I had a lot of naysayers, but I felt that was the time to do it,” she said. “It was not a bad time to take that risk. I was able to really focus on a goal.”

Doing Justice

She won and started in the juvenile dependency division. In 2008, she moved to the criminal felony division.

Tinkler Mendez has since presided over some high-profile cases, including the drive-by shooting death of 9-year-old Shervadia Jenkins, who was hit by a stray bullet on her front porch. The judge sentenced the gunman, Damon Darling, to 50 years in prison. As she did, her feelings showed.

“It was a selfish, violent act. Nothing I can do to punish you can minimize the pain of the family of the dead child,” she told him. “For you, sir, I have no particular sympathy.”

Tinkler Mendez said her courtroom style is “relatively formal but polite and respectful. I think that’s critical—how everyone treats each other. Not only do you do justice, but it’s the appearance of justice. I don’t raise my voice. I don’t use a gavel.”

She’s also influenced by her federal court experience.

“I like it quiet. … To me it’s such a special place, the courtroom. And it’s really hallowed,” Tinkler Mendez said. “I am a stickler about that.”

She likes motions and briefs filed in advance and goes through case files.

“I like to prepare myself beforehand mentally and kind of know, if I can, what’s going to be coming at me,” she said. “I get the file beforehand, and I read things and I try to anticipate—almost like a chess game—some of the issues that may come to fruition.”

Still, she said, “Sometimes you make unpopular decisions because you believe it follows the law and it’s the right thing, and you have to learn to live with that. … I’m really mindful of the fact that I’m only human.”