Circuit Judge Sarah I. Zabel (J. Albert Diaz)
People who know Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel aren’t surprised at her carefully elaborated opinion declaring Florida’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional. She’s known for her thoughtful legal writing.
They may be surprised to know she almost didn’t become a lawyer.
She aimed for Broadway, studied acting and dance in college, and even quit a well-paying and successful job at an investment firm to move to New York and pursue her dream.
“I just didn’t want to look back and have regrets,” she said.
Born in Toronto, Zabel moved to Miami Beach when she was 7. “My dad, before he met my mom, was an actor—a starving actor,” she said. He gave it up, eventually becoming a fundraiser.
Zabel followed in his footsteps—at least those leading to the stage. She studied theater and dance at Florida State University, “thinking that one day I would end up on Broadway.”
When she graduated, she came back to South Florida to work for an investment firm. It didn’t last. The itch to act was too strong.
“It was exciting for the few years that I worked for them. But my love of theater was always there,” she said. “So, after several years with the firm, I told my parents I wanted to go after my acting career.”
She moved to New York. A year-and-a-half later, she headed back to Miami Beach.
“Logic took over, and I decided it wasn’t for me,” she said.
She always had an interest in the law but wanted to be sure before committing to law school. She took a job as a paralegal in child support enforcement at the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.
“That’s where my legal career began. I decided then I really wanted to pursue law,” she said.
She got accepted to law school at Nova Southeastern University, thinking she might combine her interest in theater with the law. “I originally thought I wanted to go into entertainment law.”
In her third year of law school, though, her boss at child support asked if she would come back to work for the department as an attorney. She took the bar exam when she was 7 months pregnant.
“And that was it. I fell in love with public service,” she said. “I think that’s where my journey began as far as my path to become a judge. I knew then that’s what I really wanted to do.”
While she was there, she helped establish a program to allow child support debts to be deducted from workers’ compensation payments.
“When one person says it can’t be done, you go to the next door,” she said. “Since the program was implemented, it’s brought in thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars in past-due child support.”
She left to start her own practice, with her sights on the future.
“I was looking at the path to the bench and meeting with some prominent lawyers and they said that after so many years in child support, that in order to make myself more well-rounded that I should probably pursue other things.”
She became a civil circuit and family mediator, doing some family law and commercial litigation.
Her plan of running for the bench nearly derailed, though. In August 2001, she was 4 months pregnant when her husband, Myron Rosen, fell off the roof of a building during an inspection. The accident left him a paraplegic, but he urged her to follow her dreams.
“He came back and said, ‘I don’t want you to wait,’ ” Zabel said.
She ran for office and won, by a wide margin, taking the bench in 2003.
Since then, the cases she has presided over have put her in the media spotlight. She was assigned the Jorge and Carmen Barahona child torture and murder case, and a paparazzi’s civil lawsuit claiming he was injured by Justin Bieber’s bodyguard. And, now, the gay marriage challenge, in which she wrote the Florida Constitution’s ban “serves only to hurt, to discriminate, to deprive same-sex couples and their families of equal dignity, to label and treat them as second-class citizens, and to deem them unworthy of participation in one of the fundamental institutions of our society.”
In her courtroom, she said, she treats them all the same, and expects every attorney who comes before her to be civil. “I understand being passionate and being a zealous advocate,” she said. “But being an officer of the court … it’s all about being professional and prepared.”
Nonetheless, she said, she considers herself laid-back and deliberately does things to make the people before her feel more at ease.
In fact, she said, “I like having the motion calendar in chambers because I think it brings the tone down.”