Judge William Altfield (J. Albert Diaz)
Miami-Dade County Court Judge William Altfield is known for being a character.
Several, in fact.
He has played Felix Unger in “The Odd Couple,” Ben Silverman in “The Sunshine Boys” and Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha.”
Actually, Altfield was an actor long before he became an attorney, and longtime South Florida residents might recall his role as Sharon’s date—with a full head of hair—in the memorable “Super Chaperone” episode of the television series “Que Pasa, U.S.A.?”
Many others, though, might better recognize him as a Miami-Dade prosecutor. Or now as the judge who greets the crowds of prospective jurors called to serve at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building.
But long before the Miami native even considered law school, he was getting up early to get to the Florida School of the Arts to practice ballet and stage fencing and learning how to put on makeup. All day.
“And then we would do our rehearsals at night if we were in a show,” Altfield said. “I always wanted to be an actor.”
He stayed on that path through college, graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Miami, and landing roles as an extra in the movies “Absence of Malice,” “Black Sunday,” “Caddyshack” and at 17 on “Que Pasa, U.S.A.?”
Ironically, Altfield had a change of heart when he landed his first full-time role.
He went to New York with a group of UM students and at his “very first audition, I got a job.” He wound up doing repertory theater in Rhode Island.
Then, as he listened to the other actors in the production talk about what they would do next, it hit him: The actor’s life generally meant moving to town after town, taking parts wherever they were offered—if he got parts.
“And I really, seriously for the first time considered if this was the career for me,” Altfield said. “I came home and had a heart-to-heart with Mom, who was always saying: ‘Are you sure you want to be an actor? Wouldn’t you like to be a lawyer?’ ”
He went to law school and when he graduated took the only job he ever had before he took the bench, at the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. He stayed for 24 years, including four years handling violent sexual battery cases and later as a senior prosecutor in the public corruption unit.
His role and his goal as a prosecutor was “to make sure that justice was served, not just to make sure there’s convictions at all costs,” he said. “I would hope that as a prosecutor I was looking out for the defendant’s rights and that I was making sure they were not going to be steamrolled.”
Handling cases full time didn’t keep him from staying involved in theater. While a prosecutor, he helped found the Pinecrest-based Miami Acting Company and served as its president and artistic producing director. He continued performing and brought both his passions together by teaching University of Miami law students useful acting techniques for trial lawyers.
In 2011, Gov. Rick Scott appointed Altfield to the county bench, which led to the role that landed him on the pages of People magazine as the judge in Justin Bieber’s driving-under-the-influence case.
Altfield can’t talk about the ongoing case, of course, but he said it brought some good-natured ribbing from some of his acting friends who wrote him to say: “You made People magazine before any of us did! And it’s not even for your craft!’ ”
No matter who comes before him, though, Altfield said his goal is the same. “I want to make sure when they come into my courtroom they have equal access just like anybody else. They are going to be heard. And the law is going to be followed. And they’re on the same footing as anybody else.”
The sheer number of cases means “you have to balance efficiency with access,” he said. However, Altfield added efficiency does not mean rushing. He said everyone gets a chance to be heard.
“Whether you are coming in with a private attorney or you are coming in with a public defender or you are coming in pro se, you will be given a fair shot, and that is very, very important to me.”
And he added everyone gets treated with respect.
“The civility clause hits close to home with me not only for the attorneys, but I also want to make sure I am following that as well,” Altfield said. “When I was sworn in I included the civility clause in my oath of office because I think it is as important for the judge to be civil with the litigants and the attorneys as much as the attorneys should be civil among themselves.”