By Jan Pudlow
Dropping her judge’s poker face and shedding her too-heavy black robe, retired First Circuit Judge Laura Melvin gives a brutally honest account of what it felt like to deal with sexually abused children, a defendant sentenced to death, a 4-year-old murder victim, neglectful parents, rigid child-protection bureaucrats, and the migraine-causing, stomach-churning weight of carrying out her job as best she could — until she no longer could.
But there is also joy and humor in Melvin’s deeply moving memoir, Public Secrets & Justice — Journal of a Circuit Court Judge, as she discovers “life after law” and revels in the freedom of anonymity.
She takes us along on her uplifting adventures jumping from airplanes, seeing America with her dog as she drives a Dodge 2500 pulling a 30-foot “fifth-wheel” RV, and roaring away on her Honda Goldwing 1800 motorcycle to the nation’s four corners to raise money for children’s charities.
Public Secrets & Justice is Melvin’s deeply personal way to pay homage to the unforgettable children she met during her decade as a judge, who taught her the value of listening, stubbornness, hope, and courage.
Dedicated to “Autumn,” a 4-year-old girl kicked to death by her father, the murder trial Melvin presided over, the memoir has been eight years in the making. Once she captured the stories between the covers of a book, 66-year-old Melvin said she felt very exposed.
In an interview with the News, Melvin described it this way: When she was a little girl, her mother would sew her dresses. One day, her father, Circuit Judge Woodrow Melvin, brought home a politically connected friend for lunch.
“Little girl, that’s a pretty dress you have on,” the friend commented. “Thank you, sir,” little Laura said, “Let me show you my panties,” and she pulled her dress over her head and twirled around to show off how her mom had sewn matching ruffles to her panties.
“That’s exactly how I feel now,” Melvin said with a laugh. “Like I’ve pulled my dress over my head to show my panties.”
The result is a rare glimpse into how this particular judge kept order in the court and strove for justice, while soaking in details that seemed to come “straight from the sewer of hell.”
When she sentences a man to death and the sentence is affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court, Melvin writes: “Had I been sloppy or short-tempered, Suggs [the defendant] would live. . . . The State, my boss, told me that killing in retribution is not wrong, as long as I did it right.”
When she tells about a 5-year old girl raped by her father, Melvin writes, “My refuge is my robe, the state-issued turtle shell under which I pull my soul.”
When she handles the case of an alcoholic mother arrested for DUI, with a 7-month-old baby in the back seat, Melvin notes that this mother had two children drown in two swimming pools in the past. Again, there is a pool at the home. On the court’s own motion, Melvin removes the child from the home.
“Into the surprised silence, the Department’s [Department of Children and Families’] attorney said, ‘We would welcome the order.’ I quietly wondered if there is some buried regulation that keeps the Department from using common sense or four-letter words; is there a rule against calling danger by its real name?”
After dealing with a bitter custody battle over an 11-year-old girl, Melvin asks in the pages of her book: “Where is it written that the child loses and stays in a scary household because of the way the attorney handled the case? Is this really the way we want to define justice?”
Melvin changed the names but stuck to the facts, because, she said, “their stories are so strong, I dare not alter them.”
“I didn’t want to present a composite or fictionalize,” she said. “I can read fiction and go, ‘That’s awful, but thank God it’s not true.’ I didn’t want to let the reader off the hook.”
She pulls no punches in describing the “dark side of childhood,” revealing that her maternal grandfather sexually abused a cousin, while her grandmother watched with a smirk.
Even though her father had been deceased for years, Melvin still worried if the person she loved so deeply, the judge who swore her in as a judge, would see her leaving the law as an act of betrayal.
“But if I stay? I’ll need more prescriptions for the migraines, waves of stomach acids, chronic cough, and serial sinus infections. I’ll need to drink more and feel less. I’ll need something to calm me down so I can sleep without thinking. If I don’t leave, I need to say farewell to Laura.”
Leaving the law, for Melvin, was the right call. Entering the courthouse through the public door feels right.
“I have a limited amount of time and energy in this one life that I’ve been given,” Melvin writes. “Today I choose to focus on love, peace, and tenderness rather than being in charge of punishing people or imposing rigid rules onto their lives.”
(Public Secrets & Justice — Journal of a Circuit Court Judge, Shayna Publishing, Inc., $14, is available at bookstores, online at www.quakerbooks.org and Amazon.com., on Kindle, or, to buy an autographed copy, go to www.LauraMelvin.net.)