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Oral History Interview with Senior Judge Emerson R. Thompson, Jr.

My name is Emerson R. Thompson, Jr. I was born in Jacksonville, FL. I was born and raised there until I went to college in 1966. 

LISTEN Part I (17:18)                                                                                    (Text highlights from audio recording.)


What was a typical Sunday like for you growing up?

Well, we’d go to church, Sunday School, church. Then, we’d have dinner either at church or at home or at my grandmother’s house. Then, we’d come home, we being my two brothers and sisters, and watch television or – we could not play on Sunday- so we’d watch television or do homework or read books in the house.

Did you read a lot as a child?

I did. My family did. I did a lot.

It sounds like you enjoyed it?

Yes, I did.

What did your parents do?

My mother worked as a nurse for a black doctor. He and his brother had a, they owned a building and in that building, one was a surgeon, Landsing Bliss Childs, the other was a General Practitioner Lincoln Bliss Childs. They were both from Howard  University. And that’s where my mother worked. And my dad worked in the educational system in Duval County.

What did he teach?

He taught in the elementary school. So I don’t know that they segregated classes, but they had a class of students.

And the time period would have been in the 1950’s?

I was born in 1948. So from 1948 to 1966 I was in Jacksonville.

Do you know what your grandparents did?

On my grandfather’s side, my grandfather was a contractor and builder. My grandmother was a housewife. And on my mother’s side, my grandfather in the early part of his growing up, he worked as a cook on a sailing ship. And then he worked for the U.S. Postal Service and then retired from the Post Office. And my grandmother on my father’s side had six kids.

Did you know them?

My maternal grandfather I knew. My grandmother died before I was born. And I knew my grandfather on my mother’s side, and my grandmother on my mother’s side.

Did they live in your area? 

They all lived in Jacksonville. And if I were to guess I’d say that we were about five miles from each other. But my grandparents lived close to the high school I went to so I saw them. I saw my grandmother and grandfather. I saw my maternal grandmother and grandfather just about every day because I had chores to do on the way home from school. And I saw my grandfather not so much, but we all went to the same church.

Where were you educated?

My earlier years were in Jacksonville, FL. Elementary school and middle school and junior high school then. And then, Staten High School which is now a preparatory school in Jacksonville. I spent one year at Bethune Cookman College from 1966 to 1967. I transferred to the University of Florida and I graduated from there in 1970. And then I went to FSU for law school and I graduated from there in 1973.

Did you know in high school that you wanted to become a lawyer?

No. I did not. I wanted to be a doctor. And I didn’t do well in chemistry so that went by the boards. I didn’t want to do anything else in medicine or science. So one of my professors, since I like to read and I was good in government, she suggested I might be interested in history, political science, or something else, but mostly history and political science.

University of Florida

So political science became my major. And when I transferred to the University of Florida, remember this is during the sixties, well, you don’t remember, but during the sixties there was a lot of interest in African Studies, the government, politics of Africa. So when I went to the University of Florida, my primary degree was in political science, but my minor was in African Studies,  the government, politics of Africa. My goal was to get a degree in African Studies and to teach specializing in the country, culture, and economics of East Africa. Maybe you’ll still do that? No, I won’t. I’m not going back to school for anything at this point,  other than what I need to maintain my certificate as a judge.

Were there many female professors at that time?

Depending on the area you were in. Now the woman who told me I should consider history or political science, I was at Bethune Cookman College…  I had two women teachers of the teachers that taught me. And at the University of Florida I had no women teachers, but I was in political science and as I recall I don’t recall any women being in the political science department…. Men taught me in the history department and I didn’t  have any [women] when I studied African studies. The majority of my professors when I took African studies were not American born. One was from Paris, France. One was from South Africa. One was from England. One was from, I want to say, either Morocco or Lebanon. So, and I did have a male teacher who taught me ethnography and he was from the northeast. Northeast Africa? Northeast United States….

That was very progressive for that time wasn’t it to have foreign professors?

Not really. When you think about the sixties it was a social as well as economic and political need to have people who knew about Africa and the government of Africa and the politics of Africa. So Florida in the south, in the northeast you had, of course, the schools in Boston, but, most of all Boston University, maybe George Washington, but I just don’t recall. I was going to northwestern which had a thriving African studies program. And so, there were schools all over. The other schools that were being developed were to address the issues in Southeast Asia, in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Japan, and, of course, China. And then, there were other schools or emphasis in political science and history in Russia because of the geopolitics at the time. So they wanted people who had experience, background, or culturally were knowledgeable about those countries. 

How did you get started in your legal career?

When I was  a senior in college I had a roommate who was one year older than me and one year ahead of me in school. We had very similar personalities and we were roommates from 1967 to 1968. And we just hit it off really well. Both of us were in ROTC. He was in Army ROTC, I was in Air Force ROTC, so we had similarities. We were both the oldest child in our family and we both worked in high school to help our mothers. So when he was graduating, or in his senior year, he asked me what I was going to do. And I told him, we were roommates, and we talked about it. He was going to go in the Army, but he was going to get an educational delay and go to law school. So I asked him, “Why law school?” And we talked about it.

Loyalty Oaths

So I was talking to one of my professors… he was from Ethiopia. His name was Nagossia Yelie (sp). He spoke several languages. In fact, his first degree had been in languages. He spoke one of the languages of Ethiopia and a dialect. He spoke French and something else. And he transferred to political science. I never did find out why and I don’t recall asking. Anyway, he and another professor who was French, we were talking about – there was a big issue on campus at the time about a loyalty oath. The state government required people to sign a loyalty oath. So, it was a big issue with professors. 

They thought it was demeaning and that, one of them opined that a person who was truly anti-American would sign it with no hesitation because it meant nothing to him. And the people who had good conscious and did not think the government should be involved in vetting people by their loyalty would have problems signing it, so it defeated the purpose. The people who were truly conscientious Americans would question why it needed to be signed. And the people who weren’t and didn’t give a damn would sign it right away and loose no sleep over it because you represented an institution you were trying to undermine.

Take  the  LSAT

And so, anyway, we were having this discussion, I got caught into it. And then, I found out how much money they were making because they were talking about how much they would lose, income. One had a family, he was French. And the other had a family, but they were back home. He was in the U.S.. And when, I found out how much they made, I was shocked. Because they spoke multiple languages. Obviously, the teacher from France spoke French, English, and Swailian. And, I’m sitting and thinking, well, I don’t have multiple languages and I don’t think I’d want to make x number of dollars so what else can I do with my degree? I had a military commitment and the Vietnam War was going on. So my roommate suggested that I take the LSAT, prepare for law school, and so forth. And I did. And that’s how I became a lawyer. And then, I moved here because I had a job.

What did you do in the Air Force ROTC?

It’s for cadets or young men in college who are prepared and trained to be officers in the Air Force. Same thing for the Army, same thing for the Navy, and same thing for the Marine Corps except the Marine Corps does it through the Navy. So you had duties on campus. You learned things about military protocol, procedure, uniform code of military justice, things like that. And, at the time you graduated, you were commissioned into the military. So I was commissioned into the Air Force. And they would give you orders to report for Army or Air Force or Navy basic training. And then you would be assigned a billet or a job. Well, I got a deferral to go to law school. As long as my grades were decent, I could stay and then I would be commissioned into or sworn into the JAG Corps. And then I’d go to school in Virginia and learn about military law, etc., etc., etc. And then, I’d have four years to do in the military, a number of years to do in the reserves and then I would be discharged….

Nuclear Weapons

And a lot of my classes overlapped with my military training because we were in political science and during that time there was a fear of global holocaust. And so, a lot of it related to the use of tactical nuclear weapons and strategic nuclear weapons and diplomacy to prevent and de-escalate the threat of nuclear weapons.

Cuban Missile Crisis

We’re from Florida and we lived through the missile crises. I was in school when we had to learn to duck and cover under tables and chairs. So, and then, we had the Bay of Pigs refugees come to Florida. So, a lot of what I studied in school involving geopolitics and the dynamics of conflict related directly to my class and schooling as a young Air Force Officer. [It’s very serious.] If you were a guy during that time, you definitely thought it was very serious. It motivated a lot of guys to stay in school or go to school because they did not want to go to Vietnam.

LISTEN Part II (19:21)       


Did you select your area of law when you were in school?

Well, I deselected a number of things while I was in school. I had a job in school posting legal descriptions for a title company which I thought was the dullest and most unuseful subject I’d ever covered. And so, I knew early on that I would not do real estate period other than what I needed to do to transfer property. And I like constitutional law. I like criminal law. I like civil and criminal procedure. I hated real estate. I hated real property even though I had an excellent teacher. But I just couldn’t see spending my life sitting in an office doing title work or worried about the needs and bounds of property. I knew that early on. So a couple of things like that, you know early on, you deselect yourself. You know that does not fit my personality and I was not about to do it. Now I would have done it if I’d been forced to, but it was not my preference at all. 

Internship in Orlando

I had a job here. I did an internship here in town and that was in the last semester in 1972. I started in September and ended in December. And, I went back to school and I was to graduate in March of 1973 which I did. I was going to study for the bar. My wife was in grad school. So I got a call and a guy named Andy Hoodack who was the administrative assistant for Bob Eagan, the state attorney, called me and asked me if I wanted a job. I said, “Absolutely.” I said, “Well, when do you want me to come?” He said, “How about Monday?” I said, “Monday of when?” He said, “Like next week.” And I hesitated, and he said, “Do you want to work or not?” And I said, “Okay, I’ll see you then.” I drove to Orlando that weekend. As I recall it was a Wednesday. So, I made arrangements to get home Sunday or Saturday and started work Monday morning…  

Working for State Attorney Bob Eagan

I worked right across the street. I worked for Bob Eagan who was the state attorney at the time. Did you learn a lot at that time? I did. I learned how to try cases… What was it like when you first started out going to the court? Well, I mean, I had been here so I had done some trials as an assistant to someone and I had handled several cases on my own which were very minor where a member of the Florida Bar sat and assisted me while I tried the case. So I had done that and the butterflies had come and gone, but they were not of any great significance. So then I came back and I had a case load and so I would ask questions, but nobody babysat me. And so, that was pretty much how I started and how I learned. Now you always get a little anxiety and butterflies and nervousness. When you’re young you get them because a lot of things you have not done. Unfortunately, the only cure for that is time. So as I aged, got more experience, I became more comfortable with what I was doing.  

Would you describe your first judicial assignment and how it came about?

I became a judge. There was a woman [Pat Sandbrook] who was a secretary to the Orange County Bar Association. At the time the Orange County Bar was in the building at the intersection of Magnolia and Washington right across from the courthouse which is now the museum. And there was a woman there who I got to know. I joined the Bar and I participated in Bar activities. I was on the Speaker’s Bureau and two other things I did. I don’t recall there being a young lawyer’s division. If there was, I was not in it.

“I think you’d make a good judge…”

Pat Sandbrook, she tapped on the window one day with her ring and told me to come into her office. It was a big plate glass window. She sat literally in the plate glass window doing secretarial work for the bar. So I went in and she gave me an application for county judge and she said, “I want you to fill this out.” And I said, “Why?” I said, “I’m not from here. I don’t know anybody.” And she said, “Fill it out. I think you’d make a good judge.” And then she said, “Now don’t take it unless you’re going to fill it out.” She said, “Promise me you’ll fill it out.” I said, “Okay, I will.”

Post Office Negotiations

And I sat on it until the day it was due. And I would walk by there one the way to the courthouse. But she tapped on the window to come in. And she said, “You gave me your word. Are you going to keep it?” And I had not put pen to paper on that. And so, I worked throughout the day and worked after work to fill it out. Now at the time the post office was the main post office for Orlando and it closed last. So I was working on it and then I walked it over to the post office which had courtrooms in it. It was the Federal Courthouse and then it became the state courthouse. I walked over and they were just closing and there used to be a sliding window. I tapped on it and literally had to beg the guy to take the application.

Judicial Appointment  by Governor Askew

He had seen me in and out of the building because I tried cases upstairs in the traffic court. And he looked at me and he said, “Aren’t you a lawyer?” I said, “Yeah.” And he lectured me about timeliness and I didn’t say a word. I said, “I appreciate it. But would you stamp this for me?” And he did. And I was nominated and then appointed by Governor Askew.  

Did you have to go before a committee?

I did. The committee here… two of the people on the committee were Linda Chapin and Father Nelson Pinder. And there was one other guy that I know but his name escapes me. But he was a builder and his office was in Winter Park. And I just cannot recall it now. I used to know everyone on there, but time has taken it away. So I came out of the committee. I went up to the governor and I was appointed. I was the most shocked person of all. [That’s good, right? Humility?]  No. To me it was just political. I was not from here. I had not been a lawyer here for a long time and had no public support. I didn’t go to high school here; didn’t have a family here, and had no real deep ties here. And had really no interest in being a judge at that time. That was not something on my radar at all. So, I’m surprised.

Well, you are known for being very smart because Linda Chapin said, “He has the brightest mind I’ve ever encountered.”

I think that’s over exuberance, but I’ve known Linda for a long time.

You were the first black Orange County Judge. That was in 1976?


What was it like for you to begin? Was it, this is my job and I’m doing my work and you just go forward?

That’s just the way I’ve approached most things. The first job I had as a judge was out in Ocoee, FL and Apopka, FL and Winter Park, FL. We had a circuit that we would run. If I recall correctly you’d go to Ocoee Monday or Tuesday, or Monday and half day Tuesday. In the afternoon you’d drive up to Apopka and you’d be in Apopka Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday you’d be in Winter Park. And Friday, you’d do trials in downtown Orlando. So you had a circuit. So my first job was in Ocoee, FL out near Winter Garden, between Pine Hills and Winter Garden. At that time, there was nothing between Hiawassee Road and Maguire. No much anyway. 

Ocoee Culture and History

There was a fishing camp near Good Homes Road across from where several miles of the strip malls are. And that was pretty much it. Then you had the orange industry in Winter Garden. A coop orange groves and so on. So a lot of that area was orange groves and grove related industries. So there had been a riot in Ocoee years earlier and all the black people in Ocoee had been run out of town or killed. So you can imagine the attitude in Ocoee was different than it was in Winter Park.

Connecting with the Community Leaders

So I went to work there and I was there for several years and I don’t really remember how long. I’ll have to look it up someday. But when I got there the first thing I did is I met with the mayors, all the chiefs of police from Ocoee, Winter Garden, Windermere, Oakland; all of the city council members as many as I could. I met with the mayors, the chiefs of police, especially the chiefs of police, and city council members. I went to Rotary meetings and Lions meetings. And so, you try to get to know people. I lived in Pine Hills at the time and so it was very close to me.

It was your initiative to meet these people, right?

For two reasons.  One I wanted these people to know who I was. And two, I knew I would have to run for election. Because I was appointed, but then you have to run. It would have been in 1978.

And you did run for election in 1978?

I’ve never had an active campaign. I’ve never had anybody run against me. So for all of my judicial career I’ve never had to raise money, go out and hold up signs, put out literature…

You’ve actually served on county, circuit, and appellate as judge. All of those in addition to, you also worked as assistant state attorney.


That’s unusual isn’t it?

It is. There was a judge who had a similar background who eventually got to the Supreme Court… And he was, his family owned ranch lands. They raised cattle. Alderman. And so, he became Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court. But he had held every court position: county, circuit, appellate court, and chief justice. 

Are there different levels that you enjoyed more or different types of work that were more meaningful?

I like the trial work as a circuit judge. I really thoroughly enjoyed that. I like in order: the criminal, the civil. I despised doing juvenile dependency. I did not mind doing juvenile delinquency although that would not be my preference. And I hated family law with an absolute passion although I’d do it, but I couldn’t understand how people could do that for a lifetime. It to me was like doing tattle work. I had the same visceral animosity toward it. And it wasn’t the people it was simply, I would grow tired of hearing the bitterness between families and family members.

Family Law

Often, I just couldn’t understand it. I mean you can understand a significant problem that leads to divorce. But a lot of the things were very minor I thought and very insignificant I thought. But not to the litigants. And it was just amazing to me. And then I didn’t like the way they used their children as bargaining chips or as tools to get even. I just found it distasteful. I could do it and I did it. But it wasn’t something I wanted to do. And it was something I did not like doing. Because it was pretty obvious what the law was. And it was, after a while, I mean, people have feelings about something; you can’t make a decision based on feelings. And if the law’s clear, I mean you can listen, and they can talk for days, but it’s not going to change the facts. It’s not going to change what you’re going to do. So I was uncomfortable doing family law. 

Division of Property

Some things were complex, but that was not usually the case. And it usually came to division of property and child placement. But those were the only two things that were complex or that needed a great deal of care. But you know, splitting up property was very easy for me. I told them it’s better for you to do it because you know what you have an emotional attachment to. I don’t. And to me, it’s just a matter of value. And you may want to do this before I do because I have no dog in that fight. And I’m going to make sure the ledgers are even on both sides. But you all may not like the way I divide them so I suggest you decide to do it. 

Here’s what I would ultimately decide to tell them: Decide as much as you can how to divide and leave the rest to me. But when I start then it’s my job to do it and I’m not looking for your input. You’ve given me all the input I need. You’ve had your meeting. you’ve divided your property as best you can. The rest you say, “I can’t do.” I say, “No problem. I’ll take care of it.” And then when you start there’d be some anxiety, absolute objection to what you did. And I said, “Well, you had a chance.” Nine times out of ten they’d resolve it for me. Because as I told them, it doesn’t matter to me. Only thing that matters to me is making sure that it’s divided equally. But if you have to divide this and that and you think they should be together and they belong to – my mother gave it to me. Well, you’re then going to have to get rid of this. Well, I want that. So, no. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t have everything you want. Because you got a valuation. You got to kind of balance the table. So it was interesting.

How did you happen to become the Assistant State Attorney?

It was a job. During the sixties, early seventies, I was the third black lawyer in this town. There were no firms hiring black lawyers at all in the state of Florida. So you either opened an office on your own or you taught school and worked part-time in the evenings and on the weekends developing a practice. You worked in the military or for government. There were no black lawyers working for government in Central Florida when I got here. None. So yeah, it was a job. I had a job in Tallahassee and my wife did not want to stay in Tallahassee. She did not like it. She was from Miami. It was too cold. It was too rural. And so we moved here….

LISTEN Part III  (17:37)       


Council of Legal Educaton Opportunity – CLEO

Well, my friend told me about this program that was a program that was designed to encourage and assist black law students to go to law school. The caveat was you had to practice in the south. So it was called CLEO. Council of Legal Education Opportunity and it was founded by the Herbert Lehman Foundation. So I applied and was accepted and they assigned me to the University of Miami for the summer.

Meeting Geraldine

My wife was secretary to the law professor who ran the program and that’s how I met her…. She had a degree in business and teaching from the University of Miami. She was working on a master’s degree and was to work at Miami Dade while she worked on her master’s. And so, she had graduated in June, took a job for the summer and was to start working full time at Miami Dade Community College and go to school to get her master’s degree. So when we got married, she moved to Tallahassee. She worked for a year, a year and a half, I guess. And then she went to grad school at FSU and she got a degree in communications. And then she came back to Orlando. I had moved back here to work and she came and she finished school….  

Working as a County Judge

Well, I started as a county judge. I did traffic, small claims court, summary judgments. I made more enemies doing traffic court than I did anything in my career. We did traffic civil infractions in the courthouse which is the post office. People didn’t like tickets. They didn’t like coming to court. And if you fine them, they didn’t like that. Mostly, it was running red lights, careless driving, failure to lead the right of way, expired tag, expired decal. You had some accidents. You had DUI’s of course. But the majority of my time was spent on people who had traffic civil infractions: speeding, improper change of lane, of course, license suspended, things like that. And it was ugly. 

Traffic Court

They were just adamant they had done nothing wrong. I did know some of them and I would always disclose the ones that I knew. Most times, my friends when they saw me would go pay the fine. So it was simply many people felt that it was a racket to raise money. That they weren’t speeding as fast as the trooper said or the deputy said. So I said, “Well, how fast were you going?” “It was still above the posted speed limit.”  I said, “Okay, I’ll take that as your admission that you were going X number of miles and fine you accordingly.” And then they’d stop and think about it. And I’d say, “Now you’re under oath and you said you were doing 65 in a 55 instead of 75. Now you want to change that I assume?”  And they were sort of stuck. And I mean it was just those kinds of things. 

I-4 speed limit at the time when they had no mobile speed limits, the maximum speed limit was 55  from Seminole County to Osceola County. Nobody drove 55 on that road. And it was 50 in the City of Orlando and nobody drove 50 unless there was a traffic jam. So it was just, I got to know every stop sign, every milepost marker, and I knew the troopers. And I mean, it was just, people would come in and say nonsensical things. Because if you’ve driven that road you know that that’s impossible. 

After a while you get pretty, well, I’d make an announcement at first, and I’d clean the room out a lot. And I’d tell them, I said, “You know, I’ve looked at the tickets. Here are the posted speed limits. There are x number of speed signs giving you the speed limit from milepost marker x to milepost marker y at Lake Buena Vista. The maximum speed between these two points is 55. In the City of Orlando it’s 50. So now, if your defense was you were doing above 55, but not what the trooper said, you might want to go pay that ticket. Because if they prove that you were going above the posted speed limit and prove that it’s more than you think it was, but both are above the speed limit” I said,”Then there’s really not a whole lot to talk about.” And people get up and go pay. Because they’d see you fine somebody early on and they’d try to decide whether, let me do the numbers on this. 

And I would always say, “There’s only one crime in America and that’s getting caught.” I said, “So as long as you get away with the crime it’s not a crime. But once you get caught then-  your soul belongs to the Lord, but other parts of your body belong to me.” And so, the guys would look and smile and get up and go and pay and go back to work. And the guys who stayed usually had a point. Some people would bring diagrams, maps, but they were right sometimes.

But as I told them, cops don’t need to stop anybody. You know, if you’ve ever been on the road and somebody passed you and you’re exceeding the speed limit and somebody passed you. Well, the cops will grab that guy and everybody knew it. I mean, it was not a secret. And if the speed limit, and most of them didn’t realize the speed limit was 55 even though they were posted; and they thought it was 70 because that’s what they thought it was. And so, they’d realize it and go look. And we had signs showing the speed signs where they were. And people would look at it and go, “Oh.” And then, walk out and go pay. And so, it wasn’t as bad as you think.

Prominent Cases

The ones that interest me wouldn’t interest most people. But the one that gained the most notoriety was a woman called Judy Buenoano, The Black Widow, killed two husbands, tried to kill her boyfriend, and killed her son. That gained international attention. That was perhaps one of the most interesting cases. It was the most interesting case I’ve ever tried. Because you had two good lawyers, one of whom was Belvin Perry. And as a result of investigation, they exhumed the bodies of two of the husbands to see if they had arsenic in their body and they did. That was how she killed them.

Judy Buenoano – The Black Widow

And there was testimony that some forms of embalming use arsenic based materials that they would inject into the body after they’d taken the organs out. And one of her husbands, the first one, had been in Vietnam. You’ve heard of Agent Orange? I learned that Agent Green, Agent Purple, and Agent something else, blue, I believe, and they would spray these defoliants. And there was documentation that they cause cancer or early death, health problems. Well, the government was less than forthcoming in telling people about it. So we had this guy who was an Air Force Officer who had been deposed and discovered and then he disappeared. The military could not find him during the trial. So it was interesting.

That was the most interesting case I’ve ever tried…

And then her boyfriend testified how she tried to poison him in his medicine. And he took it to a forensic pathologist or chemist. She’d taken two capsules pulled them apart, put poison in them and put them back together. And he stayed with her even though she tried to kill him. And then she tried to blow him up with the dynamite in her car. And then she drowned her son who had braces. She dropped him into a river while they were on a canoe ride. And that was the most interesting case I’ve ever tried.

Australians Raped at Youth Hostel 

I had another case where several girls were from, I believe it was Australia, and they had a hostel booked, one was right up here off of Livingston. Well, all of them were raped. And, it was interesting, the crime, but also, the people involved; miscommunication, and how the police were attempted to be notified, but not. So, it was just very interesting. But they were from Australia, and they came back to testify. [They did?] They absolutely did…. The defendants in both cases [The Black Widow and the Hostel Rapes] were convicted.         

Martin Marietta Case

Another interesting case I had involved Martin Marietta where people broke in. This is during the 1980s. Martin Marietta was a supply of weapons and ammunitions to the military. They used to have a test site out near International Drive. If you go up in the Hyatt Hotel and look toward Martin Marietta you’ll see there’s a big open space and you’ll see there’s a concrete bunker area and that’s where they would test engines. Well, these antiwar people broke in and smeared blood on various munitions, or they thought were munitions, inside the plant. So they had a following of people. So we always had to have extra security because they were freedom fighters as one of them said. Eventually, they entered pleas and did not go through the  complete trial.

Attorneys describe you as fair. Do you have a judicial philosophy?

I guess that’s it. Growing up in the south when I did you saw how federal judges – we thought – were more fair than state judges. And that they would impose a law, and you could run to federal court to get relief when you could not get it in state court. But the one thing that always impressed me about federal judges is that they were appointed from the part of the country where they lived and grew up. So, all southern federal judges had deep roots in the area where they were appointed.

Judge Frank Johnson

And there was a judge named Frank Johnson in Alabama who went to school with, law school, with George Wallace. And they were friends. He entered a lot of orders that were sought by Martin Luther King and the ACLU and various other groups. As a result, his mother’s house was bombed and he was threatened. He lost all of his friends. I have a vivid recollection, I think it was in Esquire magazine, of him playing golf, but he had nobody to play with. He just played while he was under the watchful eye of The Marshals Service. 

Unlikely Heroes

And there’s a book called “Unlikely Heroes” [by Jack Bass], about judges who are on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals which at the time was Louisiana, Texas, and the deep south. And they were active in their communities as lawyers. But they entered orders that upset a lot of their colleagues and distressed a lot of their colleagues and former partners and former business acquaintances and former friends. But they entered them. So when you look at people like that and the things they suffered, all of them men, all of them socially acceptable, all of them prominent in their own way in their communities. And yet, they believed in the rule of law and being fair. 

Judge Clarence Johnson

So you try to be fair. I had a lawyer, a judge that I admired greatly. He was a judge in Brevard County. And he told me a couple of things. One thing he told me and I’ve never forgotten it and I try to practice it. He said, “People will forget what you did to them as a judge, but they will never forget how you treated them. And you should treat them all with courtesy and respect. And don’t ever get too high handed with people. And don’t ever forget that that  may be their first time in court and so you need to show that you sincerely believe in the administration of justice and the appearance of justice.” And his name is Clarence Johnson. And I have never forgotten that.   

The wisest words I’ve ever heard…

And the other thing he told me is, “If you ever feel like you’re about to stand up and say something, take a recess. Because whatever you’re about to say is wrong. If you are sitting there and you are about to stand up to make a point.” He said, “Stop and take a break. And go outside and call one of your buddies and say, ‘I need to talk to you for a few minutes.’ And then you go back. Or go hit the wall. But whatever you are going to say when you get ready to stand up is wrong.” And those are the wisest words I’ve ever heard.  

LISTEN Part IV (14:15)       


Founder and President of the First Central Florida American Inn of Court

There was a lawyer who was also a doctor and he worked at Winter Park Hospital. He had gotten crosswise with the administration at Winter Park. Went to law school. He was traveling in England and he had visited the courts there. The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Warren Burger started the Inns of Court which was modeled after the English Inns of Court. And the thought was to have older, mature lawyers train younger lawyers about decorum, professionalism, etc. etc. in a comfortable, friendly environment. And so, the lawyer here came to me and said, “We should do this.” And I listened to him, but wasn’t particularly moved…. And we sat down and put together some names, and people liked it. And so, we started it, and got a charter and moved on. And it’s still going on. It’s now named after, I believe, Judge Young, George Young.

Did you know Judge Young?

I knew him semi-socially. We were at the same place at the time. He did threaten to put me in jail one time. So, yes, I knew him…

Attorney Ed Leinster

I’ll tell you what happened. The lawyer I had before me, his name was Ed Leinster. And he would always come to court and say he had somewhere else to be. Then we would be at judges’ meeting,  and we found out he told everybody that but sometimes he had no where else to go. So he had a case with me and I told him, “Well, we’re going to start this case and you have a habit of disappearing. Now you need be here because I’m going to be upset if you’re not.” And I knew him from before I became a judge. Smart, but he had issues. He said, “Well, I got to go to Federal Court.” I did not believe him. I said, “I don’t care where you got to go. We’re going to start this trial.” He did. He said, “Well, may I make a phone call?” I said,”Sure.” And he did. And he said, “The judge says I need to come over.” I did not believe him. But I said, “No. You’re going to finish this first.” He said, “May I make a call?” I said, “Sure. The next break.”  

A visit from the U.S. Marshal…

A U.S.. Marshal came into the courthouse. We used to eat breakfast at the same place on Robinson across from the church. And breakfast was like two books. And all the cops and judges and lawyers would go in there and kibitz and eat a two dollar breakfast or a buck and a half. I mean, it was just-  it was a lot of food – just ridiculously nice. We’d just go in there and catch up and then we’d walk to the courthouse. And I’d seen him [the U.S.. Marshal] in there and he was well known because he was huge. He was like 6’7, 6’8. Big guy and he’d been at the – the Marshals had gotten into it with the Indians at Broken Knee where the Marshals were shooting. Anyway, he’d been shot. So, he was a big guy.

The U.S. Marshal’s Message

He came to the courthouse. He came in the courtroom and we were in a slight recess. I knew who he was. I said, “May I help you?” He said,”I came for Mr. Leinster. Judge Young wants to see him.” I said, “Will you tell Judge Young he’s in a trial?” And then he came back. He said, “I did tell him.” And I said, “And?” “He sent me for you.” He said, “You got a choice. Either I take Mr. Leinster or I take you.”  I recessed immediately and let Mr. Leinster go back across the street to take care of his business.

The Majesty of the Federal Court

So, when he [Judge George Young] retired, he joined Rotary. And we talked about it one time and I shared the story with him. And he said, “I remember.” And he said, “Never forget the majesty of the Federal Court.” I said, “Yes, sir. ” So, I’d see him at lunch at Rotary and we’d talk about the Federal Court and why they were so high handed. I didn’t put it that way to him. Authoritarian. But, he smiled. And that’s all he did. He smiled and that was it. I remember that quite well.       

You’ve served on the state court system for the Equal Employment Committee…

There was a committee where Frank Scruggs was chairman and Justice Leon DaShaw and that was on equal access. Is that the one you’re referring to?

The State Courts Equal Employment Opportunity Committee you started in 1998 and then you also served on the Florida Supreme Court Racial and Ethnic Bias Commission.

That’s the one I was talking about, the Florida Ethnic. That to me was one of the most important commissions I’ve ever heard of let alone served on. And the issue was access to justice for minorities,  women, and so on. And as a result of that, the governor at the time changed how nominating committees were authorized. They investigated the bias in the bar examination. And they looked at how certain things that we thought to be innocuous as far as joining the bar were disadvantaging minority students. And so, a lot of that was changed. And as a result, the number of applicants increased. And the number of judges increased. Because the judges then, the nominating commission was more balanced. 

How do you see the level of progress since the time when you first started? For instance, when you were the first black judge, until now. How do you see the diversity in the court system?

Well, it is diverse. The issue is always a political question. And that is, how do you define diversity? Women, minorities. But remember, the largest minority at one time were blacks, and then Hispanics.  And now, you have Haitians, and the various other ethnic groups. And, what I call, affinity groups. For example, the Caribbean Bar. In Miami-Dade County there are over 100 Bar Associations representing lawyers from Columbia, Cuba, Haitian, Jamaican, Caribbean. I mean, you just go down the list.  And then you have lawyers who are gay or who represent LGBT. So, it is – and then they find their way to the bench. So the bench is more diverse relative to when I came on, and a lot of it’s changed because of demographics.

There are, at least in every school in this state, at least half of the population of lawyers is women. So that finds its way onto the bench simply because of what I call the pipeline. As you go through and progress up your career path, you’re eligible to be appointed or elected to a position. So as the number of lawyers changes the number of opportunities for lawyers to be appointed and elected changes simply because of demographics and ability and skill.

Looking to the future, do you see it as positive because people have entered school and the demographics have changed and so there’s more opportunity from an educational standpoint?

That’s true. That is true. That is absolutely true.

You’ve been honored for a lifetime of service. You’re a Fellow of the Florida Bar Foundation and a member of the Bronze Society for lifetime giving. Would you tell us about that organization, or some of the other organizations that you really feel strongly about, and what they’ve accomplished?

The Florida Bar Foundation to me is at this point the most important bar organization other than the Florida Bar. The reason is that their whole mission is to provide access to the courts for people who have no money or who are working poor. And unless you have the ability to get into court to resolve whatever issue you have, whether it’s a contract or divorce or separation agreement or adoption or landlord tenant, you’re either disadvantaged or you have no advantage. And there’s a difference. And as a result of that, it has a tremendous adverse impact on not just you, but your family, your wife, your spouse, your children, your income, because you have to take off from work to take care of a matter and you can’t do it and so it takes you longer. You may lose a job. You may lose a place to stay. You have a landlord who is unreasonable; won’t take care of his property, seeks to evict you. So their job really is to provide lawyers and volunteers to resolve the problems of the poor through litigation or through the use of a lawyer.

Helping the Poor

The problem for the organization is that the money for their services was based on the interest on trust accounts and as the money in trust accounts of lawyers decreased, the money to serve the poor decreased. so now, the mission has had to be adjusted because of the times that we’re in. The economic problems we’re having and the crises that the poor are facing because the economy’s changing. And so, the commitment to raising money, helping the poor- there was an article I read in the Florida Bar, there’s a daily collection of stories about lawyers who volunteer to give their time to help poor people or the working poor. Those things are always uplifting because sometimes it takes a long time, sometimes it takes a short time. 

Pro Bono work in a Criminal Case

There was a lawyer here who did work on a case and usually pro bono’s done in civil cases, but he did it in a criminal case. He died, but before he died he did such a wonderful job on the case it changed the law in Florida. And a man was freed, but it effected other prisoners. So the point is that, but for him being interested in having the community spirit to do it and the ability to do it, not just one man, but a whole group of men and women have a better likelihood that they will be released from jail early…

LISTEN Part V (18:34)       


There’s a whole list of civic and professional organizations that you’ve been involved in so were there any others that you specifically wanted to talk about?

The Paul Perkins Bar started in my home. There were several of us who got together and started a Bar Association for minority lawyers, black, but it was not exclusively for black lawyers. We’ve always had members who were nonblack. And that started in my living room. And that’s something that’s always been close to me.

The Paul Perkins Bar Association

There’s a national black bar organization called the  National Black Bar Association  and several of us belong to it. And there were other black bars in the State of Florida, minority bars. And so, we decided we’d start one here. And so, we got a group of people together at my house, drafted some documents initially, and then turned them around and made them formal. And, it still functions.

You’ve served on the Florida Supreme Court’s Statistics and Workload Committee and I know that’s sort of more behind the scenes. But it has a major impact doesn’t it?

It did. It’s changed now. In fact, that committee was eliminated and the duties merged. But that committee taught me a lot about the administration of justice. The committee’s primary purpose was to give the court objective reasons why judgeships should be created. We looked at demographics, growth, types of cases. For example, a capital case takes longer than a simple aggravated battery. A tobacco case takes longer than a slip and fall. So you try to weigh the cases to look at how much time a judge spent and why you would need a judge. The number one thing that drove all of the numbers on population growth sounds simple. But as the population of Florida increases, you need more judges because people are more litigious, or you’ve got more people who are just as litigious, but you’ve got more things to do. And we had objective data why you needed new judges in county court, circuit court, appellate court.

We need more judges.

We set up a matrix. We got advice from the National Center for State Courts. And the legislative agency called OPPAGA and they did a report and said that we needed more judges, and they didn’t like that either. So the point was, the politics drove the data. So you could explain why you needed more judges and give them numbers and data and information. And we’ve got a growth in these types of crimes and it takes longer to do these. For example, drug cases, big drug cases. But the legislature would say, “Well, that’s expensive so we don’t really need to do that. Can you do it some other way?” 

And then you had special masters come in and then you had additional law clerks come in as a way of – it’s cheaper than creating a judgeship and a judge assistant. The cost on that is relatively higher relative to a class clerk. So it’s not just a judge and the jury. It’s the space, salaries, benefits, retirement, and so on. And so, it was intriguing to me. You claim it’s taking too long to do this, but you don’t want to appropriate judges because it’s too expensive. So what are we supposed to do?

Concern about the state of the judiciary.

For example, recently, judges have not gotten a raise in several years. State employees have not. And so, there’s a move a foot to have judges serve term limits. And judges had to pick up their own insurance. So, eventually, people who have skills, ability will not seek to be judges. And you’ll have people who have made all the money they need and decide they will cap their career by being judge. And then, you’ll have some people who think that well, I’m not making a lot of money here so I’ll try to make it judging and run for office. So, there’s a concern about the state of the judiciary. The politics of the court and the legislature always is interesting, let me put it that way.

But you did accomplish a lot by having the data.

Right. The court still collects that data, but not through the committee. I mean, the data is available now primarily because of computers. So, you can, with the clerk of the courts, in the 67 counties, you can get empirical data. Now periodically, there will be a study that’s done to make sure the data’s accurately captured, evaluated. Therefore you can draw reasonable inferences from the data. But, as I said, the number one thing that is always a constant in any formula you have is growth. The more people come, the more cases you have, the more judges you need. And, I mean, it’s true for schools, sewer and water, policeman, fire protection. You get a bunch more people, you need a bunch more services. It’s real simple. It’s not hard. 

And then you get complications like court reporters, you need court reporters, court interpreters. I had a trial the other day, you needed a Haitian translator, and a Spanish translator, and another Spanish translator who worked just for the defense team because there were certain things they wanted to talk to their client about, but they couldn’t let the court interpreters hear or be involved in. And then you needed a Haitian interpreter for the victim. And, I mean, it was like being at the U.N.. And the maximum number of court reporters I’ve had is three for different languages. An American defendant committed a crime against a Japanese or Chinese victim that was observed by a Spanish witness. Now the Spanish witness and the Chinese victim spoke some English, but they were not proficient in the language. But they spoke some English.

But they had to be there in order to prove the case. And the guy had done – it was an armed robbery – but he had also been involved in other armed robberies. And so, he was a bad guy. The guy who was Chinese had flown home on holiday. Because of the distance they don’t just go and come back. And then  trying to hold on to people because they’re nervous about being in the court system. And the Spanish guy was a witness and he was nomadic, that is, he was in construction. So, it was interesting. It was interesting. And, it takes longer because you talk slower and so then, the translator can then translate. And then, the objections, the Spanish guy’s relatives believed he was not interpreting correctly what he said. So, it was intriguing. It was intriguing.


The biggest thing now for all of us is that one of the things the legislature did is that technology can be used to offset the need for people. It won’t eliminate the need for people. So technology has really been a savior for the court system because it does make things in some areas go faster: testimony communication, documents, retrieval of documents, information…. I had clerks when I was on the Fifth DCA they could go from drafting to printing memorandums and only use a pen and paper for checking back placeholders, things of that nature. But I would draft on paper, type it, or give it to my secretary to type, have it come back to me on a piece of paper triple spaced and I would edit and gave it back and go back and forth. My clerks did not. It was all done electronically. Sent out electronically, corrected electronically and then printed for me. And then, I’d do an opinion  or modify something, print it, give it to my secretary who’d make changes. And then I’d read it on the computer and then she’d send it to the clerks and they’d make their changes on the computer and I’d print it again….

You have a lifetime of experience serving in the courts and in our community because you’ve done a lot of civic activity… how do you feel about the American Legal System today? Do you still see it as serving the needs of our country and the people?

The question as I would phrase it is: Do you think there’s still a place for courts and for supremacy of the courts in resolving issues between different groups in society? Absolutely. If you don’t have the rule of law, and people don’t think they’re being treated fairly, it doesn’t matter if they are or not if they don’t think they are. I heard a justice of the Supreme Court say once that, “The court had no armies, no navies, and no police.” People may not like the decisions they made, but under the rule of law they follow it. Now obviously, you sometimes have to get injunctions and you have to get a body like the military to enforce an order. But most people followed the decision that they made. They complained about it. They complained about the judge bias. They complained about the judge’s politics. But they followed the decision. So if you erode the trust that people have for a decision, then they won’t follow it, and then you’ll have to force it on them through strength of arms. And then that’s when you start to see the country deteriorate because they will not believe that they got a fair shake.

“The appearance of justice is more important than actual justice.”

So that’s why I went back to Clarence Johnson who said, “The appearance of justice is more important than actual justice.” Because people will support a decision they don’t like if they think it’s fair. I didn’t win but I got a fair shake. But if you loose that, then people will contest and not follow anything they don’t like. And that’s when you start having problems. And so, I’ve always worried that a larger and larger segment of the population will not trust a judge’s opinion or a trial or a decision made by a judge or a jury. Because then they develop tendencies toward anarchy and that’s dangerous. But the decision’s got to be fair. Ultimately you can’t sell a bad decision. It may not be perfect, but it’s always got to be fair.

Equal Treatment Under the Law

There’s always going to be a dispute between law provided to the poor and law provided to the rich. And if the poor, if they don’t feel they’re getting equal treatment under the law regardless of the disposition, they will rebel. The middle class, if they don’t think they’re getting a fair disposition, they will rebel. And there you are. So, yeah, we worry about it. I worry about it. You try to do your best to make people think they got a fair shake. 

Is there anything else you would like to talk about…

I am married and I have three kids and four granddaughters.

You’re known by many as Senator Thompson’s husband.    

That’s absolutely true. Absolutely true. As my public persona has decreased deliberately and hers increased, a lot of people had no idea I was a judge because the population in Florida has changed. A lot of people that were my peers and older are no longer with us. And many of the new people, they were not here when I was an active judge in this circuit. They’ve never heard of me, but they’ve heard of my wife. They’ve actually heard of my wife. So, yeah, that’s absolutely true.

Do your children live in the area and do they work in law?

No lawyers in my family directly. I have a granddaughter who’s a lawyer. But my oldest children work in Tallahassee and they have two kids each in each family. My youngest daughter lives in Lutz, Florida which is north of Tampa and she has no kids. So they’re within driving distance of half a day. 

Do you talk to your granddaughter about her work?

I do regularly. She does family law, and she does campaign law, and lobbying.


Interview:  Senior Judge Emerson R. Thompson, Jr.

Interviewer:  Jane Tracy

Date:  February 23, 2017

Place:  Orlando Public Library 

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