One of the things I’ve come to understand more and more is that every public office is important. With this in mind, I recently interviewed a candidate I support.
Robert Coppel, currently the Director of Training and Professionalism for the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office, is running for an open Circuit Court Judge seat in Miami-Dade County, Florida. He took some time with me recently to answer questions about his candidacy.
What made you want to become a judge?
I was thinking about it for about 10 years, a bunch of people encouraged me to do it over the years and I was not ready to do it because one, I didn’t think I had enough experience, and I just decided with the experience I’ve had in the courtroom – because I’ve been in the courtroom for 28 years, you know when you’ve been in the courtroom for 28 years you get to see what works in the courtroom and what doesn’t work in the courtroom, so I thought that I could use the experience I have in the courtroom in addition to the way I treat people, because the way, you know, I get along with people – I think the courtroom is a very important place for people to be treated with respect. When they walk into the courtroom, to feel like they’re going to be heard, they’re going to have a fair shot, and basically that’s what my whole life is about. I thought that my professional life and my personal life combined to be a judge, you know everything I’m about, about being fair and giving people the opportunity. So, I would say to put it the best way, I think it’s the culmination of my career and my life as well, of the things I’ve done, and I’m ready for the next challenge, because you know I’ve been in the Public Defender’s office for close to 23 years.
AM: I did not know that. I knew you’ve been there a long time, but 23 years, when you just say it like that, that’s two years less than I’ve been alive.
The other thing is I’ve worked with lawyers for the last 15 years, and I’ve basically been a trainer and a mentor to attorneys, and I like to see attorneys do well.
What are the issues you see with the judiciary right now in Miami-Dade county?
Well, I’m not allowed to comment on certain issues, when you run for judge, you’re not allowed to comment on issues, but the one thing I think is most important is people have access to the courts, that they have an opportunity to be heard, and I think what makes a judge a very good judge is having the skill of listening, the ability to listen to people, to listen to the facts, to apply the law.
I think one of the issues that’s picking up steam is the issue of forensics, and I think more judges need to become educated about forensics.
As a judge, will you decide cases any differently from the judges currently on the bench?
No, my approach would be to listen to the facts, apply the law, and use my judgment based on my personal and professional experience. I don’t think a person when they become a judge just throws away their personal experiences and the knowledge that they have, but ultimately it’s based on the facts and the law and applying that and the judge is the referee. Most of the time it’s the attorneys who are going to resolve the case and it’s the work of the attorneys, and I think a judge’s job is sometimes to get out of the way and let the attorneys do what they have to do as long as they’re following the rules.
Every judge decides differently based on each case, but you bring your personal experiences into a courtroom. I think I have good judgment, and I think I’ll make good judgments, I think I’ll make fair judgments.
What role should rehabilitation play in the justice system?
Well, if you ask the Republican and Democratic legislature, recently they tried to pass a law that would let prisoners get out early because of drug problems. Were you aware of that?
AM: No, I was not.
The Republicans and Democrats passed a law that would have allowed some people to get out of jail early if they had a drug issue, and the Governor vetoed it, which should tell you something. The Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on anything and they agreed that some people have been in prison way too long. I think everybody agrees that most people could be rehabilitated. There’s a lot of programs in the community, I’ve learned campaigning there’s a lot of people out there that want to help people get back into the community, and not even get into the system.
How do you feel about private prisons?
I don’t necessarily think they work any better than the other type. Based on what I’ve read, statistics, I don’t think they work any better. You know, it’s for profit so someone’s making money. I think the most important thing for prisons, whether it’s private, whether it’s not private, is to realize that people are going to get out of prison at some point, to make sure that they give them the tools to be able to get a job, to be able to function in the outside world, so no matter who runs prisons, I think they need to do a better job of helping people do that. I think we would all agree, that we don’t want people to re-offend, we want people to get out and do well.
Is it appropriate to sentence juveniles as adults?
I worked in the juvenile division for seven and half years, and I think a lot of people don’t like the direct file system, just direct filing kids to adult court, and I think that most people would say there’s got to be some tweaking and changes to the system, and I think you have to look at the political perspective of when the direct file system came in, why kids started getting direct filed, you had a lot of tourist robberies, young people doing it, and that sort of pushed it in that direction, but I think the best person to talk to about that, if you really want to know the answer is Marie Osborne, she’s the chief of the juvenile division. I think she would be able to give you the strongest opinion about that, and someone from the state attorney’s office, I don’t know how they feel about it, but being in the juvenile division I know that some kids get caught up in the direct file system that shouldn’t be direct filed and other kids should get direct filed that get direct filed, so they need to work on it a little bit and I think they’re going to. I think there are people who are trying to make it a better system. Do you think that most people think the juveniles should be treated as adults, what do you think?
AM: I don’t believe in absolutes where you could never direct file or you should always direct file a certain type of offense.
There are certain mandatory direct files if you read the statutes, a certain age, a type of crime that they have no choice. A lot of times a kid will get direct filed because their co-defendant gets direct filed so they’ll send the co-defendant along with them, a kid that gets arrested with an adult, he’s 16 years old, and the adult’s being charged, most of the time they’ll also send the juvenile to adult court, so sometimes it’s who you’re hanging around with, who’s been arrested with you, that will cause you to get direct filed.
There were some conversations, I know, in the legislature. Some people thought that judges should have a little more discretion, they should have a hearing in front of a judge, and the judge have a bit more discretion, and it shouldn’t just be in the state attorney’s hands, but that’s been sort of an ongoing conversation. I don’t have a problem with judges being involved in that. I would encourage that, especially judges who are experts in the fields, and if a judge has been sitting in the juvenile system for a while they tend to know what they’re doing. Just so you know, I was juve for seven and a half years, and that would be one of the places that I actually would like to sit if I’m elected.
What do you think is an appropriate sentence for a non-violent drug offender?
It depends because remember there are sentencing guidelines and the criminal code that guide you, what people can be sentenced to. You still have to factor in a person’s record. I think most people would agree that if you can find an alternative where they can get help, where they can get treatment, that’s why we have drug court. People who are first or second time offenders, they go to drug court, they graduate, it’s a great thing. Drug court is amazing. And then there are other people who obviously might need some help without being in drug court, but you have to transition to the program out there that helps people. I think it’s up to a judge to know which programs are available and the success rate. I think state attorneys should know that, public defenders, the judge, everybody should be aware of what programs work and if someone is eligible for a program, then I think it’s reasonable to send someone to a program but I think you also have to look at the person’s record before you make a determination. But hopefully most people with a drug problem can get some help, I think everyone agrees with that. I think with people using drugs and committing violent crimes, that’s a different story. If you’re just using drugs and you’re not committing any violent crimes, than that’s a different story, but you’ve got to try to help people as much as you can, it’s what I’ve been doing my whole career.
Do you anticipate being “tough-on-crime” or using mercy and compassion in sentencing offenders?
I don’t think it’s a question of being tough or soft, I think I’ll be very fair. I’m the type of person, people should know, I am a compassionate person, I don’t think you can be an assistant public defender without having compassion, but I’m fair, I’m decisive, I think that’s an important thing. After looking at the facts, and listening to what someone has to say – I mean, just in my job, if someone comes to see me I’ll listen to what they have to say – but then I can be very decisive when I need to be. I think you should be fair and decisive, I think that’s a good combination. People want someone to make a decision, you should be willing to stand up for the decision that you make. But I don’t see myself as being tough or soft on crime or anything like that, I just see myself as being fair and making good judgments based on what’s in front of me.
Robert Coppel graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1978, and from Nova Law School in 1983, he has lived in South Florida since 1981. As the Director of Training and Professionalism for the Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office for the last four years, and a training attorney in the juvenile and felony division for 12-13 years before that, Robert Coppel said, “My whole job has been geared to helping people be better at what they do.” He has about 50-55 people volunteering to help his campaign this summer.