Long before Mark Mahon could even drive a car, he knew he wanted to be a lawyer.
During summer breaks from school, he would ride into town with his father to his Washington Street law office.
The younger Mahon would take pleadings to other lawyers or file papers at the courthouse.
But the real highlight was being able to watch his father — the iconic Lacy Mahon Jr. — in court.
“I just thought it was the neatest job anybody could ever have,” Mahon said. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
A graduate of Florida State University’s law school, Mahon’s legal career has included being an assistant state attorney, sharing a practice with his father and being appointed circuit judge by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007.
Between the latter two, Mahon served in the Legislature, entering with the class of 2000 when more than half of the House members were new because of term limits.
The pinnacle of his legal career came last week when the 57-year-old Mahon was elected chief judge of the 4th Judicial Circuit by his fellow judges. He will replace Don Moran, who is retiring in January after 21 years as chief judge.
“It’s such an honor,” Mahon said. “It’s almost indescribable.”
Following his father’s footsteps
Mahon has been colleagues with some of the area’s best attorneys during his legal career.
Fresh out of law school, he was hired to work for State Attorney Ed Austin in 1981.
In Mahon’s three years as a prosecutor, he worked alongside the likes of John Delaney, Rick Mullaney, Angela Corey, Fred Franklin and two of his judicial colleagues, Brad Stetson and Suzanne Bass.
It was, Mahon said, a place where he made lifelong friends.
When Lacy Mahon decided to leave the practice he shared with his brother, he asked his son to go into practice with him. They did criminal law, domestic, civil and some personal injury law.
The experience was both educational and daunting.
His father was an excellent trial attorney with great instincts, Mahon said, particularly when it came to cross examinations.
“I have seen him take witnesses where I would think there’s no way he’s going to be able to get control of that witness and get what he wants out of them,” Mahon said.
But he did.
“He was just wonderful at getting to the truth,” he said.
As the father-son practice grew, they brought on Russell Healey, another of Mahon’s future judicial colleagues.
The two Mahons were different lawyers. The elder Mahon’s style was much more aggressive compared to his son.
“Sometimes it would frustrate him that I was not more (aggressive) and sometimes I think he would look back and say, ‘You know, maybe I was too much so,’” he said.
Mahon said he gets the more serene side from his 86-year-old mother, Nancy, who also had a different personality than his father.
“A lot of people say she’s as good as he (his father) was bad,” he said, with a laugh.
When asked how his father would let him know he had done a good job, Mahon smiled and said, “He was more advising when you did less than a good job. He wasn’t a big praise guy.”
But he was a solid influence in his son’s life, including encouraging him to run for the Legislature, another way Mahon would follow his father’s path.
Off to Tallahassee
Mahon said he and his father were headed south when he encouraged him to run for the seat left vacant by Jim Fuller due to term limits.
Lacy Mahon had a love for politics. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1953 and 1955 and as county solicitor in 1956. He also was Northeast Florida campaign chairman for John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
The elder Mahon lost a bid for Senate in 1960 and never sought public office again.
Mahon recalled his father’s political mantra: “If you get beat once, one you’re a threat. If you get beat twice, you’re a has-been.”
Mahon said his father told him the Legislature was a “great way to meet people and a great way to get your name known.”
It turns out both were true.
Mahon beat Charles McBurney in 2000, when the new representatives from Duval County were Republicans Don Davis, Dick Kravitz, Mike Hogan, Stan Jordan and Aaron Bean and Democrats Audrey Gibson and Terry Fields.
Mahon said Hogan remains a close friend, as do fellow Class of 2000 members Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart lawmaker who is chair of the appropriations committee, and Sen. Bill Galvano, of Bradenton, who has the votes to be Senate president in four years.
When Mahon went to Tallahassee, he believed he could help in several ways through his background as a lawyer and as a board member of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority.
He also considered himself a small businessman because of his law practice.
Ultimately, though, Mahon’s most public achievement came in a fight over an adoption law supported by the Republican party, but not Mahon.
Correcting a wrong
The so-called “Scarlet Letter” law would have required women who wanted to put their children up for adoption to publish their sexual histories in a newspaper if they did not know who fathered their child.
Mahon said he had been advised by someone he knew to vote against the law, which he did.
He was one of the very few Republicans to stray from the party’s support on the bill. It ultimately passed and became law.
The criticism was heavy throughout the debate of the legislation, but then the heat came from an article in The Wall Street Journal.
Soon, Rep. Johnnie Byrd, who became House Speaker, approached Mahon and said: “We were wrong, you were right, you fix it.”
Mahon led the way for the new law, which established a paternity registry, so men who believe they have fathered a child can be contacted if that child is put up for adoption.
“It put the burden where it should be,” Mahon said.
The law passed the next year, he said.
“It’s amazing when the Wall Street Journal is hammering you how fast things can be corrected,” he said.
Stepping up for the 4th Circuit
When Circuit Judge A.C. Soud decided to retire in 2007, Mahon applied for the vacancy.
Ultimately, Crist appointed him to the bench, making Mahon the second in his family to be a judge. Mahon’s grandfather also served as a judge. (His great-grandfather founded Main Street Baptist Church.)
Mahon spent his first three years in criminal court, he said, then moved to juvenile.
When he was first appointed a judge, Moran suggested he take his place on the Trial Court Budget Commission, which oversees the collection of the money from the state that is distributed to the court system. Mahon is now the chair of the commission.
Deciding to run for chief judge wasn’t easy. He knew his competition would be Judges Lance Day and Mallory Cooper. The two, he said, had “worked tirelessly to get the courthouse built.”
He sought input from several judges, as well as people in the community, including Delaney.
Mahon said replacing Moran, who’s been there for more than two decades, is a “little bit unnerving.”
“I feel to some extent I have to be the face to the community of the judicial system,” he said.
And, it’s important for a chief judge to remember, “You work for the judges as opposed to the judges working for you.”
It’s an honor he can’t share with his father, but one his mother told him would make her husband very proud.
About Mark Mahon
• The son of legal stalwart Lacy Mahon Jr. and his wife, Nancy.
• In addition to his father, his grandfather, uncle and cousin also were lawyers.
• Received his bachelor’s and law degrees from Florida State University.
• Married to Mary, with whom he has a daughter, Emma, who is a seventh-grader at Episcopal School.
• Has three children from a previous marriage: Harrison, a medical student at Northwestern University; Davis, a third-year law student at the University of Virginia; and Lacy, a senior majoring in English at Florida State University. “None of them are earning money yet,” he laughed.