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Be a Judicial Lawyer

Special to the News Columns
Jim Vickaryous

Jim Vickaryous

Court proceedings are not about the presiding judge. Great judges will focus solely on the issues at hand and not be the star of the show. There is one notable exception. Judicial investiture ceremonies are solely focused on the judge about to be vested. Investiture ceremonies have their differences depending on the jurisdiction. The common feature of all investitures is that the judge takes an oath. Investiture ceremonies are official court proceedings. Often, investitures are the only court proceedings where most of the judges of a circuit are in the same courtroom together at the same time. In my circuit, the county sheriff takes the place of the courtroom deputy to call the court to order. It’s a nice touch and I’ve always appreciated the sheriff’s thoughtfulness in doing it. The chief judge presides over the investiture ceremony. It starts with an invocation and ends with a benediction. They are public proceedings and people from all walks of life attend. They all have their own charm. I even attended one investiture in which a choir inspired all with their songs.

For good reason, local bar associations are often involved in investitures. My local bar association presents the robe to the incoming judge, along with a few congratulatory words, during the ceremony. During the year that I was president of the Seminole County Bar Association, three new judges were to be invested in ceremonies to take place on three consecutive Friday afternoons. It was my job to order their robes. I knew the lawyers that were to become judges very well. Embarrassed to ask, I procrastinated in contacting them about what size robe the bar association should get them. Being gracious, and indeed, judicial, one of the three called me and said, “Jim, no offense, but none of us want to tell you our dress size. We’ll order the robes we want and you can give them to us at the ceremony.” Graciously being let out of this awkwardness, I did not object. Their first judicial order was a wise one indeed.

Being a judicial lawyer starts on the day a lawyer gets sworn into the Bar, solemnly swearing, “I will maintain the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers.” Once you are sworn in, you are an officer of the court. You are a part of the third branch of government, the branch that is supposed to safeguard our constitutional rights as citizens of the republic. All judges start somewhere before becoming a judge. Whether you aspire to the bench or not, you should conduct yourself as a lawyer very judiciously in both your public and private life. You never know, you might come to a point in your professional life that you are recruited to either run for judge or apply for an appointment.

Lawyers aspiring to be judges need to start early in their career to achieve this goal. A wide legal experience helps. Building your network helps even more. Part of being a judicial lawyer is to be active in both your community and in the legal profession. It is becoming more common for lawyers to be appointed to the bench at much younger ages than in the past. As they approach their first election after being appointed, they start reaching out to people they never spoke to before becoming judge. This can be off-putting to the recipient, as these relationships should have been made over years of being active in local bars, local community organizations, at church, and engaging in charity. The relationships you build with non-lawyers and lawyers alike will help you immensely in your career. Start working on these relationships long before you are a judge.

Maintaining the respect due to courts and judges can be hard when things don’t go your way. But remember, no matter how much you think you were right, be careful what you say as you walk out of the courthouse. Be even more careful how you describe and talk about our system of justice online and in public. As an officer of the court, people judge you harshly if you bash the court system that has given you your license to practice law. You can argue and distinguish both the facts and the law of every case, even after you win or lose. You can’t criticize the court in its central role in the justice system.

The responsibility of a judicial lawyer transcends personal success. It involves nurturing the next generation of legal professionals. Actively engaging in mentoring relationships and collaborating with colleagues creates a supportive and collaborative legal community. Sharing knowledge and experiences not only aids in the professional development of others but also strengthens the bonds that hold the legal profession together. Better lawyers make for better judges. Those who you mentor and befriend may end up on the bench someday.

Being a judicial lawyer is even more important in the state election process for trial judges. Florida circuit and county court judges run for re-election every six years. They are justifiably restricted in what they can say and how they can run their campaigns. Judges running for re-election may not detract from the integrity and independence of the courts. Non-lawyers often do not understand that judicial candidates have both hands tied behind their back when running for office. The common question of “What party are you a member of?” gets an answer of “I am not allowed to discuss this in a campaign.” A judicial candidate can smile and state they will follow the law, and not much more.

Great judges need lawyers to help their campaigns and, importantly, to follow the strict rules of judicial campaigns. Nothing sullies the reputation of the justice system like a judicial campaign that goes into the gutter. By supporting and endorsing qualified candidates, judicial lawyers contribute to the election of judges who will uphold the rule of law. Recognizing the impact of these elections on the legal system, judicial lawyers play a vital role in ensuring the bench is occupied by individuals of high caliber. It is to our great benefit, our clients, and our communities to have the very best lawyers be judges. We lawyers have a key role in making that happen.

There can be upsides to seeking judicial office, win or lose. One upside is that voters get to have several choices as to who gets to be their local judge. Listening to the retirement speech of one of my all-time favorite judges, I came across another reason for running for judge. Early in his legal career, Rotary Club friends encouraged him to run for judge. He demurred, saying he was not yet experienced enough, and surely would not win an election. They kept encouraging him, insisting that even if he lost, the consolation prize would be a much larger network of friends and clients. He gave in and put his hat in the race. To his great surprise, he won the election. He decided to give judging a try and was re-elected over many decades due to his judicial skill and demeanor. His fellow Rotarians must have seen something he did not see in himself, and his fellow judges saw the same thing when they later unanimously elected him chief judge. Humility, like hospitality, is a rare thing.

The pinnacle of a judicial lawyer’s career may involve transitioning to the bench. However, not every lawyer either wants to be, or has the patience needed to be a great judge. When I graduated law school, my mother bought a robe for me, encouraging me to put it on someday. To her disappointment, it still hangs in my closet. I use it every now and again to officiate weddings, when asked to do so by friends. I am an advocate at heart and do my best work helping others. I enjoy wearing my heart on my sleeve and having a public opinion. You can’t be a great judge and be an advocate at the same time. But it does not prevent judicial lawyers from advocating for the justice system and third branch of government in ways that judges cannot. As a judge once remarked, a trial is a team sport, and the judge can’t do it alone.

Being a judicial lawyer is a calling that demands a profound commitment to justice, ethical conduct, and the betterment of the legal community. As officers of the court, judicial lawyers shape the legal system, leaving an indelible mark on the pursuit of fairness and equity for all. In their collective efforts, these legal professionals contribute to a legal community that stands as a beacon of justice and integrity. We can’t all be judges, but we can be judicial lawyers. Let’s all resolve to be judicial lawyers.

Jim Vickaryous is the managing partner of the Vickaryous Law Firm in Lake Mary and represents the 18th Circuit on The Florida Bar Board of Governors.

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