Ariana Fajardo Orshan. Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM

The new frontrunner for South Florida’s U.S. attorney spot, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ariana Fajardo Orshan, caught some attorneys off guard given her background.

“Who is this person?” asked a commenter on attorney David Markus’ Southern District of Florida blog after Politico broke the news, a nod to the fact that Fajardo has never been a federal prosecutor.

But those who know the family court judge say her experience as a Miami-Dade prosecutor and judge on the criminal bench have prepared her for the post if nominated.

“That job is about leadership — it’s about enthusiasm and support for the lawyers and prosecutors and the agents who are building the cases,” said Holland & Knight partner Bill Shepherd, who started at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office the same day as Fajardo two decades ago. “She’s got that in spades and knows what that job entails. The fact that state court uses a different score sheet than the federal system I think misses the mark on whether she’s a great person to run that office.”

Fajardo would be the first woman selected to run the Southern District of Florida’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, one of the busiest in the country. President Donald Trump has nominated 41 men and one woman to lead U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country so far.

The South Miami resident comes from a Cuban family with plenty of lawyers in it, and she always knew she wanted to go into law, she told the Daily Business Review in 2013. She graduated from Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law in 1996 and then spent eight years as a state prosecutor, conducting long-term investigations in the felony, narcotics and organized crime divisions.

“There was nobody to blame if the case went bad except yourself because you were part of it from the very beginning,” she said at the time. “You have a higher obligation as a prosecutor. It’s not just ‘do your job.’ You wear the white hat.”

Fajardo left the State Attorney’s Office in 2002 and spent several years practicing family law with her husband, Robert Orshan, until Gov. Rick Scott appointed her to the circuit bench in 2012. She served as a criminal court judge and then became the first administrative judge of the Unified Family Court division.

“Judge Fajardo has shown outstanding leadership, sensitivity and innovation in managing a division where families are often suffering under their worst crises,” Miami-Dade Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto said in an email. “Judge Fajardo is a team player and a great colleague, and we are extremely fortunate to call her one of our own.”

Fajardo emerged as the top pick for U.S. attorney after Trump and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio apparently were at loggerheads about their choices. According to Politico, Rubio preferred Kobre & Kim attorney John Couriel, but his chances were shot when he said publicly that he wrote in former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for president. Other previously reported favorites were former state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, who lost Tuesday’s special election for the Florida Senate, and attorneys Jon Sale and Roy Altman.

In all likelihood, Fajardo’s name was brought forward by former Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, now Trump’s labor secretary.

“It helps that the secretary of labor is someone who knows her very well — there’s no denying the obvious,” said Fajardo’s longtime friend Jorge Perez, a former Miami-Dade Circuit judge now with Bryan Cave.

Perez said he knows Fajardo would carry out the “law and order” agenda Trump outlined on the campaign trail.

“She’s very patriotic,” Perez said. “She loves this country, like many of us who are Cuban-American and fled oppression. We understand that the rule of law is a fragile thing.”

Perez met Fajardo when she succeeded him as president of the Miami Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative and libertarian group. She impressed him by drawing lots of new members and quickly mastering new skills, and she was never afraid to ask questions.

“She has the kind of personality that is very positive, outgoing and she has a great sense of humor, doesn’t take herself too seriously — in a good sense, so that people feel very comfortable working with her,” he said. “You don’t want an arrogant U.S. attorney.”

Shepherd agreed, calling Fajardo a “dynamic,” “high-intensity person” who has a proven track record of building relationships with law enforcement officers and other stakeholders.

“You have three sheriffs to work with, three elected state attorneys to work with, FDLE [Florida Department of Law Enforcement] — there’s all sorts of different people pulling on your attention to try to pull the ship in the right direction,” he said. “It takes someone with a strong hand to keep people focused on the right priorities. [If] you know the hours of guys standing in the rain on surveillance, you appreciate that background.”

Fajardo would certainly not be the first person with her professional background to rise to prominence as a federal prosecutor, Shepherd said.

“If you look around the country at other U.S. attorneys, a lot of them have been former judges,” he said. “A lot of them have been state [district attorney]s. Miami has produced a lot of top people who have gone on to handle senior positions, both at the U.S. attorney level [and] the main Justice level, Janet Reno being only one of those names.”