Learning From the Annals; When Miami Was Part of the Wild and Wooly West

It seems only yesterday that parts of the judicial system in Miami were not yet even starting to understand the widely-accepted social mores of the 21st century. The terms, “sexual, ethnic and gender harassment” in the work place were not yet commonly known. I was a young Hispanic woman in my early twenties, the first female interpreter in the Eleventh Judicial Circuit and I witnessed the throes of our coming of age first hand.

When I first came on the scene, straight out of college in the northeast, I was ill-prepared for the  “old boys’s club” mentality that prevailed here at the time. Court Interpreting and Court Reporting were completely male-dominated fields, and of course, there were no female judges. I am sure I was perceived as a changeling that had wandered into their realm, and while the vast majority respected me, there were exceptions. I observed  and was part of events that are presently unthinkable.

Nowadays, we rightfully complain about long depositions lasting into the night, without an interpreter replacement, or regular breaks.  Compound that with being in a crowded room with ten men, half of which are smoking smelly cigars with utter disregard for anyone else.  During a bathroom break in one of these instances, the court reporter, a big six foot Victor Mature (movie star in the 40s) wannabe, waited until everyone had filed out of the room and squeezing by, behind my chair, leaned down and lasciviously planted a wet kiss on the nape of my neck!  Thankfully, I come from a family of four strapping brothers and I am the oldest.  I simply shot up from my seat like a roman candle, forcefully slapped the Cheshire grin off his face, and sat down demurely, ready to proceed, as the lawyers came back in.

More astounding is the story of a deluded judge who apparently fancied himself a Casanova.  The first time I interpreted before him, he asked me to stay behind in chambers after the hearing.  Starry-eyed at this young age, I thought he had liked my interpretation and was going to ask me for my card.  You can imagine my surprise when he suddenly started to chase me around the table groping with his outstretched arms to grab me! One of my aforementioned brothers is a world-class runner and apparently the genes run in the family, not to mention the fact that this man was at least 30 years my senior.  It took me two laps around the table until I was able to gain enough of a lead to make a successful record-setting sprint for the door.  And of course, there was no forum to bring up any of these incidents.  It would have been my word against his and I would certainly have been blacklisted at the courthouse.

We used to have a judge, whom I’ll call Mr.Dixieyland, an elderly southern “gentleman”, who had the affect of a plantation owner in the times of the Confederacy, and seemed very genteel, until you scratched the surface. He had a worn, ponderous bible in his desk drawer that he would only drag out with much effort, to administer the oath to witnesses with a Hispanic surname. They were obliged to swear to tell the truth with one hand resting on said volume.  He would freely say, off the record, that Spanish people could not be trusted to tell the truth, even after taking the oath. And he never got to meet all the other “furriners” that regularly appear in court currently….

Judge Bunker was a “traditional”, family man, who would often make up his mind before hearing the evidence, by merely skimming the file and consulting his firmly-held convictions.  On several occasions I heard him say, as the lawyers were walking into the courtroom, things such as, “Mr. So and So, the boat goes to the little lady and make sure you get her a nice wardrobe to start off her new life”, to then hear his bailiff tell him sotto voce “ Judge, there’s no boat in this one”.

I mention these incidents because to my knowledge all of these men have passed on to greener fields, and in addition, I am altering their names to protect their identities. They were part of a bygone era, and playing by a now obsolete set of rules. Nevertheless, we need to examine the learning curve to acknowledge the extent to which we have grown in a relatively short time.  I think it is important to note how the legal and business environments have evolved in this aspect. This change has been partially responsible for allowing our profession to achieve the status we now have as duly-recognized officers of the court, who rarely experience these encounters and have a framework to safely report ethical infringements. Furthermore, I am sure that Miami is not an isolated case but representative of the country as a whole. It is our duty to be vigilant and continue to advocate for equality and fair treatment for all under the law, establishing the borders for the frontiers of the future.

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