By Jan Pudlow
Ordering two prosecutors and two defense attorneys to his hotel room, 18th Circuit Judge O.H. Eaton, Jr., locked the door. No one was leaving, he announced, until a new rule on depositions in criminal cases was drafted.
For years, the Criminal Rules Committee had been stuck grappling with the contentious issue and was getting nowhere. Attempting to head off a legislative remedy, in 1996 the Florida Supreme Court ordered the rules committee to finally come up with a solution.
Behind that locked door in his hotel room, Eaton led the drafting.
“And what resulted was a major overhaul of the deposition rule that both sides in the room basically hated. I know, because I was there,” recalled Donnie Murrell, outgoing chair of the Criminal Law Section.
“None of us thought it was workable and none of us wanted our side to know we had anything to do with it. . . .
“I hate to admit it publicly, but Judge Eaton’s solution worked very well. And in the 10 years it has been in effect, it has needed very little adjusting.”
Murrell told that story June 26 at a joint luncheon of the Trial Lawyers Section and Criminal Law Section, in Orlando, while introducing Judge Eaton, the recipient of the Criminal Law Section’s annual Selig I. Goldin Memorial Award.
Calling it “our Oscar, our Tony, and our Emmy all rolled into one,” Murrell said the award is “reserved for the most deserving, and it’s come to be a de facto lifetime achievement award.”
This year’s worthy winner came to the bench from a civil practice and has served in every division of the court, but prefers presiding over criminal cases.
“Sometimes people from a civil background can be a little tone deaf when they take the bench in criminal court. But not Judge Eaton. He learned the words and the music,” said Murrell, a board certified criminal defense attorney in West Palm Beach.
“The scouting report on Judge Eaton as a trial judge is a lawyer’s dream. Lawyers who practice before him invariably describe him as ‘unbiased’ and ‘respectful.’ They’ll say he’ll listen to anything you have to say. He won’t always rule the way you want, but you will be heard. And what more can any litigant or any lawyer ask for?” Murrell asked.
“More importantly, when they’re describing Judge Eaton, they’ll talk about him and use the phrase ‘teaching judge.’ I don’t mean as in, ‘I’m going to teach you a lesson.’ He teaches his lawyers in the courtroom what the law is, and he teaches them how to practice law.”
Murrell quoted the Florida Supreme Court as describing Judge Eaton as “one of the most experienced trial judges in death penalty cases and the judge who teaches the state’s judges the death penalty course mandated by the Rules of Judicial Administration.”
In a death case last year, Murrell said, “Justice Pariente went on in a concurring opinion to quote verbatim large portions of Judge Eaton’s sentencing order. That’s high praise indeed.”
Judge Eaton also teaches death penalty litigation at the National Judicial College, at the University of Nevada, in Reno.
“The remarkable thing about Judge Eaton, and one of the primary reasons that he’s receiving this award today, is that his influence, his shadow, and his footprint go far beyond the courtroom. He has an obvious passion for criminal justice issues. Besides handling a full docket in his own circuit, Judge Eaton has a wide variety of voluntary bar activities that have left an indelible mark on Florida criminal practice,” Murrell said.
When Judge Eaton came forward to receive the award, he said, “I looked at my biographical sketch in the program and my wife was looking at it, too. She said, ‘They left something out.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ She said, ‘Well, they left out the fact that you make the best damn baked beans in Central Florida!’”
Turning serious, Judge Eaton said, “It’s always a pleasure and very rewarding to be recognized by your peers for the job that you’ve done. Let me make it clear that I wouldn’t have been able to do many of the things — or any of the things — I’ve been able to do without the help and support of some of the finest lawyers and judges in this state, many of whom are in this room right now. I looked at the list of who has received this award. There have only been six circuit judges, and three of them have been my close friends: Susan Schaeffer from the Sixth Circuit (2004); Stan Morris from the Eighth Circuit (1997); and, of course, my friend and mentor, the late Marvin Mounts from the 15th Circuit (1990). I am very, very honored to receive this award, and I thank all of you for it.”