By Jan Pudlow
Stanton Kaplan’s first job out of law school was at a Ft. Lauderdale firm with bathrooms impossible to use.
Useless to Kaplan, that is, because he had been getting around with a wheelchair since he was 14 after being struck by polio in 1950.
Every time he had to go to the bathroom, he had to roll across the street to use the accessible bathrooms at the Broward County Courthouse.
“They didn’t have any ramps. I had to put the front wheels on a curb and grab the parking meter and pull myself up on a curb and go inside to the bathroom. This was two or three times a day. I did that four years,” Kaplan recalled.
“Then my mother said to me: ‘You know what would be a great job for you? A judge. Then you don’t have to go anywhere. You can go to the bathroom in the building you work in.’”
Kaplan took his mother’s advice.
Running against an incumbent small claims judge, Kaplan parked his wheelchair in front of the Pantry Pride and handed out campaign cards. After winning that squeaker election in 1966, he’s been a judge ever since, and has been on the 17th Judicial Circuit criminal bench since 1977.
“Stan Kaplan is an icon in the courthouse,” said criminal defense lawyer David Bogenschutz, who’s known him for more than three decades.
“He has become a go-to guy for the courts, as far as judges. To say he is dean of judges doesn’t do enough justice for him. When judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers are anxious to find out what kind of theory might fly, or whether or not you are on the right track legally, Judge Stan Kaplan’s chambers is one of the first places you stop. He is a judge’s judge.”
Judge Kaplan’s disability has never held him back.
“When you are in front of Stan Kaplan, you are not in front of a disabled judge,” Bogenschutz said.
“You don’t dispense justice with your legs. You dispense justice with your head and your heart. And in both of those areas, Kaplan is both head and shoulders above other judges.”
Friend and colleague Judge Marc Gold asked facetiously: “Oh, he’s disabled? To me, he’s not disabled at all. As far as I’m concerned, it’s nothing that bears on his role as a judge.”
Ask Judge Kaplan about his disability, and he matter-of-factly answers: “My disability has been a big asset. I have to look at it that way or I never would have gone to law school or become a judge or have anything.”
UM Took a Chance
Kaplan grew up in New York City during the polio scare in the early ’50s, when no one knew how polio was contracted and mothers warned their children not to go near the public swimming pools.
“Sure enough, I wasn’t allowed to go near the pools. I would watch through the chainlink fence, and sure enough I got it anyway,” Kaplan recalled.
He went from a skinny 150-pound 6-foot-tall basketball player at 14 to a patient weighing less than 100 pounds, whose routine involved therapy at rehab hospitals, working to get his arms strong enough to get in and out of bed and a car.
“I had very supportive parents and family and so you go along. You don’t have any choice. You accept what you have and move on,” Kaplan said.
After treatments at many hospitals in 1952, Kaplan had a teacher come to his home who was more interested in watching the three New York major league baseball teams on television — the Giants, Dodgers, and Yankees — than teaching him anything.
“I never wrote one paper. I never did a thing except watch baseball with my teacher,” Kaplan said. “He put in that I completed the course. Actually, the truth of the matter is I only went through the ninth grade.”
Kaplan’s father, a restaurant owner, pushed him to do something besides sitting at home watching TV.
Every couple years, Kaplan’s parents went to Miami Beach for their vacation. That seemed like a good place for their son, much easier to maneuver in a wheelchair with its flat terrain and nice weather, rather than New York’s icy, cobblestone streets and curbs and hills.
Kaplan should go to college, his dad decided.=
“How can I go to college?” Kaplan asked. “I didn’t go to high school.”
With a shiny new ’54 Ford Fairlane equipped with hand controls, Kaplan and his mom headed south to see if the University of Miami would let him enroll.
“I never dreamed they would accept me. In fact, they didn’t. I had to take some tests to see what I knew. They put me on probation, and I had to take basic courses, like reading and writing and arithmetic. It’s the truth,” Kaplan said, laughing.
His parents went home to New York, leaving Kaplan in what he described as a “roach-infested” off-campus dormitory in an old Army hospital. Kaplan admits he was better at playing gin rummy poolside on Miami Beach than he was buckling down, studying for classes. But when his dad threatened to pull him out of school, he tried harder.
It helped that his college roommate, the late actor Michael Dunn, was brilliant. Dunn played Dr. Miguelito Loveless, a mad scientist on The Wild Wild West television series.
“I’m sitting in my dorm, and all of a sudden the door opens and here comes my roommate. He’s 3-foot-10. I was shocked. No one told me. I don’t know if he was shocked I was in a wheelchair. We became very close,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan went on to become a college graduate with a degree in accounting, got married and lived in the married dorm.
But doing tax returns during tax season proved too dull for Kaplan.
So he went to law school at UM, where he was a top student and editor of Law Review.
While serving as a Broward County judge, he was offered an appointment to the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
“I didn’t want to sit behind a desk reading briefs, just like I didn’t like doing tax returns,” Kaplan said. “I turned that down, and then I was offered a circuit judgeship by Gov. [Reubin] Askew in 1977.”
In 42 years on the bench, Kaplan has pretty much seen it all — from misdemeanors to murders.
He won’t pinpoint his most memorable cases, but this is what he most loves about being a judge: “You get to meet so many people and see so many interesting situations, and the challenge of the machinations of the law.”
Broward County, he said, has been very good to give him everything he needs to make his job easier. They adjusted his bathroom. When it’s time to go to court, he rolls his wheelchair onto an elevator lift in a small room, pushes a button, and soon he’s level with the bench. A door opens and he wheels himself to the bench.
“Nothing has stood in my way,” Kaplan said.
In 1997, a botched neck surgery to fuse seven vertebrae ended up paralyzing his whole right arm. But he dictates his orders and carries on.
It’s a bonus that his son, Michael Kaplan, is also a circuit judge in the same courthouse, where they often share lunch and stories and note about crazy litigants and entertaining attorneys who appear before them.
“As a child growing up, I considered him the most active father on the block. He played sports, threw the ball, and played basketball. As a young child, frankly, I saw him in the chair, but I really never realized he was different. Only later, I appreciated what he had to overcome on a daily basis,” Michael Kaplan said.
“Most people don’t realize he’s in a wheelchair sitting behind the bench. He has a serious look about him that demands respect from litigants and attorneys,” Michael Kaplan said, adding his father rarely talks about or dwells on his disability and values his independence.
“Generally, he is very pragmatic. He understands that there are certain things he has to do differently than others and goes about doing them. He’s probably one of the toughest minded individuals I know, and that carries him through the day,” Michael Kaplan said.
All Business With a Sense of Humor
“I’ve never seen another judge who has control over his courtroom as does my father. You can hear a pin drop. He doesn’t tolerate any inappropriate behavior or unprofessional behavior. He holds the lawyers to the highest standard,” Michael Kaplan said.
When Court TV wrote a mini bio of Judge Stan Kaplan, during the 2001 criminal case of “The Teacher and the Schoolboy,” it said he “runs a tight ship. The graying, mustached jurist rules on motions and objections quickly and with authority. . . . In 1994, according to published reports, Kaplan ordered a man uttering profanities during his sentencing to be gagged with duct tape.”
Judge Stan Kaplan does have a charming sense of humor, chit-chatting with jurors during breaks. A collector of Three Stooges memorabilia, he interrupts motions to suppress hearings in chambers with a Three Stooges clock that cuckoos, “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.”
Judge Gold describes Judge Stan Kaplan’s courtroom style as “all business.”
“When my courtroom gets too noisy, I will tap on the mike and say, ‘I want Kaplan Quiet in this courtroom.’ Everyone knows what I mean,” Gold said.
But the courtroom will be too Kaplan Quiet in January, when the 72-year-old stalwart judge is forced to retire because he’s hit the mandatory retirement age. He plans to return as needed to handle some trials on senior judge status.
“To think he is retiring in December, really, it is distressing to lawyers who have appeared before him for many years,” Bogenschutz said. “This is one of those occasions that speaks so loudly for the stupidity of the 70-year retirement age. Judge Kaplan is as quick and as bright and as indefatigable, despite his physical problem, as he ever has been.”