Beatrice A. Butchko
Beatrice A. Butchko (J. Albert Diaz)

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko has ordered Cuba to pay for torturing one of the men who captured Che Guevara, admonished a respected state prosecutor and sentenced a former judge to prison for 20 years.

She’s also had a defendant threaten to kill her.

It’s a far cry from where the boarding school girl and history buff with her eye on being a psychiatrist thought she’d wind up.

Born in Manhattan, she was brought up by a single mom who was born on a sugarcane plantation in Cuba and parlayed her earnings from a hair salon into a profitable portfolio of South Florida real estate holdings.

They moved to Miami in 1972 when “the Dolphins had just had their undefeated season,” Butchko said. “And they’ve broken my heart every year since.”

Her mother taught her the value of hard work, love of country and respect for the flag, which led to her being called into the principal’s office in high school. She was in student government at Notre Dame Academy with responsibility for raising the flag in the morning.

“When John Lennon died, I thought it was a good idea to hang the flag at half-mast,” she said. “I didn’t realize you needed to have an official government holiday. So, midday, I was called to the principal’s office to find out why the flag was at half-mast. And I said, ‘Well, John Lennon died.’ And Sister Anthony explained it’s not for rock and roll stars but for heads of state.”

Heading to college at the University of Florida, she planned on becoming a psychiatrist. She dropped that as soon as she took a job in admitting at the Alachua General Hospital emergency room.

“I quickly realized that I had too much physical empathy for people in pain,” she said. “I physically felt the pain of the people coming through the doors.”

She switched to law. “I enjoyed public speaking. I like history. And it was a perfect fit. So I decided to go to law school.”

She remained undecided about what practice area she wanted to go into through her first-year civil law classes.

“Nothing was touching my soul, so to speak,” she said. “Until, second year, criminal procedure—loved that class. It was that interplay between the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and life, people. The Bill of Rights comes to life in criminal law.”

She found her passion when she took an internship at the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.

“I don’t have a memory of wanting to be a criminal defense lawyer,” Butchko said. “I have a memory of thinking about wanting to be in court and working on the side of law enforcement, and criminal law.”

When she graduated, she said, “I was tempted to stay in Chicago. But I’m an only child. … My mother didn’t tell me to come back, but I could hear it in her voice.”

She got a job at the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office and stayed for 11 years. She left, she said, because “I wanted to try my hand at civil to become a more well-rounded lawyer. I didn’t feel like I was a lawyer 100 percent. I was prosecutor, but I wasn’t a lawyer in the private sector. I didn’t know how to make a living outside of government.”

She went to a civil maritime defense firm, representing cruise lines. It was a whole new world. “I had never seen a complaint. I had never seen an interrogatory or a request for production.”

She left there to join the white collar practice at another firm, became a partner, then moved again to become a partner at what is now K&L Gates, handling white collar, civil litigation, asbestos defense and, later, family law.

But, she said, something was missing.

“When I was a prosecutor in public service, I would get up in the morning and could not wait to get to work,” she said. “When I was in private practice I didn’t have that same feeling. … I wasn’t as fulfilled as I am in public service. Public service just drew me back.”

She applied for a judicial nomination. On her third try she was appointed. She took the bench in 2006.

Her courtroom style, she said, is intentionally formal.

“We’re guided by the canons. We’re guided by the rules of judicial administration. We have a duty to the public. We have a duty to the law. We must be efficient. We have to employ case management to do that. I think it’s important to be consistent in the manner in which you run your division, what you expect from the lawyers. It’s important because it gives people a sense of security, comfort to know that when they go into a particular judge’s division, what to expect. You give them comfort. It makes things a lot easier.”

She likes receiving courtesy copies in advance. She likes case files in advance. “I always tell the lawyers, ‘the more you give me, the better prepared I will be, the better product you will get.’ ”