Maria Elena Verde
Maria Elena Verde (J. Albert Diaz)

When Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Maria Elena Verde was 10, her single mom was killed in a car accident. Verde went to live with her grandparents in Caracas and tried to hold on to her English by translating Spanish-language movies as she watched.

She also held on to a dream of becoming a lawyer—even if she had to dress as McGruff the Crime Dog to get there.

“It was just a calling,” she said.

In fact, she said, when other children said, “ ’I'm going to be a princess,’ or ‘I’m going to be this,’ I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be a lawyer.’ ”

When she finished high school, her grandparents moved the family to Miami. Her English was weak, her family was poor, but her dream was still strong.

She enrolled at Miami Dade College and worked full-time as a cashier at Publix to pay her way and to help the family.

“One check was for me. One check was for my (grand)parents,” she said. “I would walk to work and then take a bus to school.”

It took her four years to finish her associate’s degree, and she decided she had to go away to finish.

“I left to Florida State with $700 in my pocket that my grandfather gave me.”

When she graduated, none of the law schools she applied to accepted her. She had made dean’s list but didn’t score particularly well on her LSAT. So she came back to Miami and took a job with the county Youth Crime Watch of Dade County. Her duties included dressing in a McGruff costume for the Dade County Youth Fair. “That was just a job within the field while I applied to law schools.”

She also started on a master’s degree.

“I decided, ‘I’m going to make myself a better candidate for law school every year until I get in.’ ”

The day before law school classes started, she found out she was on the waiting list at St. Thomas University. If somebody missed class, they told her, you’re in.

The next day, the phone rang.

“Maria,” the voice said, “welcome to law school.”

She raced to class, still wearing her crime watch uniform.

In law school, her plans took an unexpected turn.

“Since I wanted to be a public defender or defense attorney so much, I said, ‘I’ve got to force myself to intern for the state so I can evaluate the other side,’ ” she said, “and I fell in love with the office.”

She stayed nearly four years. She left to go to a private firm, finally achieving her childhood dream: criminal defense.

“My very first trial, I won. I felt like I was on top of the world,” she said. “There’s no feeling in the world like accomplishing your dream and then being in front of a jury and living out your dream. … It’s sort of like, I guess, a dancer feels when they’re on stage, or a performer.”

She left two years later to launch her own firm, with enough money in her pocket to pay her office rent for two months and to put some used furniture in. She bought a broken computer at Goodwill and put it on a desk in the “fake secretary space.” In truth, she had none.

“My secretary was always out to lunch,” Verde said. “When people would come in I would say, ‘Oh, she’s out to lunch. Come on in, I’ll just take care of you myself.’ I helped anybody who walked through the door with a criminal case.”

She never looked back. Her third month in, she made $15,000, more than enough to cover her expenses for a year and to hire a real secretary.

“I never struggled. I never once thought, ‘Oh, this was a mistake,’ ” she said. “It was just a wonderful time for me.”

Ten years later, though, she felt she had done it long enough. When a seat on the bench opened up, she ran.

“I went, literally, door to door, telling people my story,” she said.

On Election Day, she sent her family like troops out to voting precincts. “I had a schedule on the wall with all 200 of my crazy Cuban relatives on it,” she said. “Tia Juanita is going to the Hialeah library and … .”

She took the bench in 2013, determined to listen and to encourage attorneys to try their best, even if what they were proposing had never been done before.

“I tell the prosecutor, ‘Come up with creative solutions to these problems that we have,’ ” she said. “I tell the defense attorney, ‘Come up with creative ways to defend your client.’ Because I will listen. I won’t be that judge that says, ‘It’s never been done so we’re not going to do it.’

“If you feel you want to say something, say it. If you have a motion you’re scared to bring before me because you think, ‘Oh, she’s just going to deny it,’ I won’t. I’ll listen. I really will.”