Etzler honored with Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award
Orlando attorney Mary Ann Etzler’s decades of pro bono service culminated Thursday with a Supreme Court ceremony in which she received one of the profession’s highest honors.
Describing the former law enforcement officer as a “trailblazer” with a “unique perspective and real-world understanding,” Chief Justice Charles Canady pronounced Etzler the recipient of the 2020 Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award.
“Generations of lives have been improved with her pro bono efforts,” the chief justice said. “She is literally a life saver.”
Eztler pronounced herself proud and humbled, and traced her passion for service to growing up in a small northern town where neighbors helped each other.
“I can’t tell you how many times my father used his tractor to pull other people’s cars out of a snowbank,” she said. “We hunted and fished, we shared our catches.”
Etzler urged the audience to follow her example, saying public service benefits the giver more than the recipient.
“In a way, serving others is really a way of serving myself,” Etzler said. “Serving others actually reduces my stress, and inspires a healthier, more meaningful life.”
The Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award commemorates former Miami lawyer Tobias Simon, a civil rights champion, prison reform crusader, and leading appellate authority who died of cancer in 1982.
The award was created to recognize and encourage Florida lawyers who each year donate thousands of hours to clients who could not otherwise afford an attorney.
Etzler’s dedication to helping abused and neglected children navigate the court system reflects the best of the Simon tradition, Chief Justice Canady said.
Justice Canady noted that the owner/shareholder of Etzler Law, P.A., became a lawyer in 1994, after spending 15 years as an officer and a sergeant with the St. Petersburg Police Department.
Since 1995, Etzler has performed more than 1,232 hours of pro bono service to clients of the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association.
“She has taken on only what can be described as an overwhelmingly voluminous amount of work,” he said.
The official count doesn’t reflect the time Etzler donated to training staff and volunteers, and working with judges and court administrators to improve the pro bono representation process.
Nor do the hours include the time Etzler spent helping fellow volunteer Guardian ad Litem attorneys with conflict cases.
As a volunteer Guardian ad Litem, Etzler is credited with serving 49 victims of child abuse, neglect, and abandonment who were involved in dependency, family, criminal, and delinquency court cases.
As Etzler’s reputation as a volunteer grew, judges began asking for her by name when confronted with the most complex and heart-wrenching cases, often involving child sexual abuse and parental murder, Canady said.
In addition to the donated hours, Etzler’s generosity has touched countless children through the thousands of dollars she donates to indigent clients.
“I’m humbled not only by this award, but the collective gifts of time and talent,” bestowed on fellow recipients at the ceremony, Etzler said.
Before Etzler’s acceptance speech, Florida Bar President John Stewart presented The Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Awards to 22 Florida Bar members.
“These lawyers have helped the elderly, the abused, those who have survived domestic violence, hurricane victims,” he said. “They have impacted families, they have given hope. It’s what being a lawyer is all about.”
YLD President Santo DiGangi presented the Young Lawyers Division Pro Bono Service Award to Jacksonville attorney Belkis Plata.
“To be able to use my skills in a profession that I love very much, is truly humbling,” Plata said. “Some of the most impactful moments of my career have been tied to the pro bono work that I have had the privilege to perform.”
In addition to Eltzer, Chief Justice Canady presented the following honors:
• Eighteenth Judicial Circuit Judge Lisa Davidson, winner of the Chief Justice’s Distinguished Judicial Service Award. “Many of us entered the legal system because we wanted to make a difference,” Davidson said. “Representing the economically disadvantaged is about making sure there is equal justice.”
• Judge Karen Sue Jennemann, U.S. Bankruptcy judge, Middle District of Florida, winner of the Chief Justice’s Distinguished Federal Judicial Service Award. “Our customers are quite attractive customers for pro bono service,” Judge Jennemann said. “The bankruptcy bar is willing and able and does volunteer to help others.”
• The Starr Law Offices in Pinellas County, winner of the Chief Justice’s Law Firm Commendation. Founder Ted Starr described helping 83-year-old twins retain their home by reversing a reverse mortgage. “We were able to turn around those people’s lives,” he said.
• Miami-Dade Chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, winner of the Voluntary Bar Association Pro Bono Award. Chapter President Elisa D’Amico said she was sharing the award with her chapter’s 400 members. “Those of you who know me, know how important pro bono legal service is to me, it is the core of who I am,” D’Amico said.
Justice Canady said the ceremony was an important reminder of the legal community’s singular dedication to serving the disadvantaged.
“The practice of law is a privilege that carries with it certain responsibilities,” Justice Canady said. “This selfless work is deserving of recognition, which is the reason we are all gathered here today.”