Judge Nuria Saenz
Judge Nuria Saenz (J. Albert Diaz)

Miami-Dade County Court Judge Nuria Saenz came from Cuba when she was 9. She couldn’t speak English, but she knew she wanted to be a lawyer.

“I think I wanted to be a lawyer even in Cuba,” she said. “I always wanted to be a lawyer, and I always wanted to be a judge.”

Saenz’s father, a fisherman, opposed the Cuban government. He wound up a prisoner there.

After his release, the family was granted political asylum. They arrived in Miami on Thanksgiving Day 1979.

Saenz went to Citrus Grove Elementary, unable to speak a word of English.

“It was very difficult at first,” she said. “I remember sitting there and not understanding.”

Her frustration faded as she built her language skills, and her desire to be an attorney grew.

“I think it was seeing my father in Cuba, living there, where there was no real justice,” she said, “and then coming here where we have this great system—I just grew up knowing that I wanted to be a part of it.”

She went to Barry University, studying philosophy and psychology, then to St. Thomas University for her law degree. Her faith still shows. She keeps the Bible she was given at her investiture on the cabinet by her desk.

“I think it’s important to have faith and to ask for guidance,” she said, “because these are serious decisions that we’re making that impact people’s lives. Often, I’ll kind of rub it or just put my hand on it and I know that can go forward with a tough day ahead.”

She interned at the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office during law school. “I thought I wanted to be a prosecutor,” she said. The internship in the felony division changed that. “The reality of life is seen at the state attorney’s office. … The crimes you saw there; it was very tough.”

At about the same time, she took a family law course and realized that, she said, “I wanted to look at the law more positively.”

After graduation, Saenz went to work at the Legal Aid Society of the Dade Bar Association. She represented parents in divorce and paternity cases, and, later, guided pro se litigants seeking to file cases through the Family Court Self Help Program.

“We didn’t provide legal advice, but made sure they had the proper paperwork,” she said.

In 1999, she joined the Family Court full time, as a staff attorney in the case management unit. It put her in the courtroom on a daily basis, acting as a liaison between parties and assisting judges by reviewing cases, preparing orders and drafting final judgments. It was, she said, “kind of like being a clerk.”

Four years later, she was appointed as a special master in the criminal division and, just a year later, became a general master and child support hearing officer.

“That was a really great experience,” she said. “I handled hundreds and hundreds of cases. You get to see a lot of people.”

The volume and the variety of the cases—criminal traffic, misdemeanor and felony—”was preparing me to be a judge,” she said.

In January 2005, Saenz moved to the Unified Family Court Complex Litigation Division, presiding over cases involving families with filings in multiple divisions.

That summer, then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Saenz to the county court bench.

“I really have achieved the dream my parents had for us,” she said. “That is why we came here.”

She has been in the civil division ever since, handling landlord-tenant disputes, breach of contract cases and other small claims matters. She now has responsibility for domestic violence cases and sits as an acting circuit judge as needed.

“I think it’s important that everything be in writing,” she said.

That applies equally for attorneys and pro se litigants.

“I like to treat the pro se’s as much like attorneys as possible,” Saenz said. “I like it to be formal and professional, but I still like everyone to be comfortable.”

She tends to be more formal in pro se cases, and makes it a point to wear her robe in those situations.

“I want them to appreciate where they are,” she said, “and that they should behave and realize that this is a court of law.”

She also expects everyone to show courtesy and respect for the other parties.

“I like everyone to refer to everyone else as Mr. or Mrs.,” she said. “No first names.”

It’s a rule she stands by even during less formal case management conferences. “It can be a little more relaxed,” she said, “but still no first names.”

She also prides herself in being very organized and efficient, but determined to make sure everyone gets the time they need to have their say.

“I’m very patient,” she said. “We may run over and end late, but it will be finished.”