Carlos A. Rodriguez (Melanie Bell)
Broward Circuit Judge Carlos A. Rodriguez found the law wearing a scuba tank.
The Havana-born son of a Cubana de Aviacion pilot who flew Raul Castro to Czechoslovakia and read the writing on the wall, Rodriguez wound up growing up in Fort Lauderdale. His father sent the family ahead on vacation, then used a layover on a Havana to New York flight he was piloting to seek political asylum.
His father gave up flying and became a scuba diving instructor and, eventually, opened his own shop. Rodriguez joined him and, by the time he was in high school, was helping teach a string of assistant public defenders who took up diving.
“I just got exposed,” he said.
It didn’t hurt that he was dating former Broward Chief Judge George Tedder Jr.’s daughter.
“I got to listen to him quite a bit. … It got me interested,” he said. “It’s all about the people that you know and the influence they have on you.”
His influences were strong. His mind was pretty well made up by the time he headed off to study political science at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. He cemented his decision with an internship at the public defender’s office “before I even went to law school.”
He came back to the University of Florida for his law degree, and straight back home as soon as he graduated. Rodriguez joined the Broward County public defender’s office fresh out of law school and stayed for five years, working his way up to chief assistant before leaving.
In 1985, he joined a private civil firm and shocked his colleagues when, on his first day on the job, he was thrust into a trial.
It happened by accident, he said. He went, as he was instructed, to ask for a continuance. The judge knew him and said, “You can try this case.” The judge then proceeded to set it for trial for the following Monday, despite Rodriguez’s protests. When he got back to the firm and told them what happened, “everybody goes ballistic,” he said. “They sent one of the other guys to sit with me while I’m trying the case.”
That’s where he proved to himself that criminal or civil, “a trial’s a trial’s a trial.”
After two years with the firm, he went on his own. For the next two decades he did both civil and criminal, handling everything from commercial litigation and malpractice cases to first-degree murder.
During those years he also found time to indulge his other passion: baseball. He and a friend formed Just Fanatical Baseball Maniacs Inc., a Miami Marlins fan group, even before the baseball team threw out its first pitch. His devotion to the team is one of the things he shares with his fiancée, Broward Circuit Judge Marina Garcia Wood.
In 2009, then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him to the bench to fill the seat vacated by the death of Judge Howard M. Zeidwig.
“I had always wanted to do this,” Rodriguez said. He held off from applying for a nomination as long as he did, he said, for financial reasons. But after running his own firm for more than 20 years, he felt it was time.
“Around 2008 it just started occurring to me that as a lawyer you only have so many trials in you,” he said. “A trial just takes a lot out of you. Especially on a big case.”
One key to a smooth proceeding, he said, is “you’ve got to have a sense of humor.
“You have to have a certain amount of formality, but where the sense of humor comes in a little bit is to keep the tension from going too far. Basically, as a judge, you’re a referee. If things get heated you’ve got to calm things down.”
Since donning his robe, he’s been assigned to the criminal, dependency, juvenile delinquency and, now, civil divisions. Every one hinges on the same thing, he said, and he insists it be upheld.
“The most important thing is people telling the truth,” he said. “And you won’t believe how many people come in and raise their right hand and they don’t tell the truth. It’s a pet peeve of mine.
“I have put people in jail for lying—immediate criminal contempt of court. Because the whole system falls apart. If somebody comes in and they’re a good liar and they raise their right hand and they don’t tell you the truth and there’s no consequences, the whole system falls apart.”