by Mike Sharkey
His office is simple and the walls are modestly adorned. Framed diplomas and certificates and a stray piece of art is about all there is. His desk is tidy and the room is impeccably neat. What would you expect, though, from someone who’s only been on the job for five days?
Newly-appointed County Court Judge Russell Healey entered court Monday for the first time in 22 years without a biased agenda. He wasn’t there to defend a client or see that a bad guy goes to jail. And, despite having over two decades of legal experience, Healey admitted that he found himself a bit anxious Monday morning. It wasn’t just typical first day jitters everyone gets. Rather, Healey found himself in a unique position only a fraction of attorneys ever experience — robe clad, gavel in hand and charged with listening to both sides of an argument without taking a side.
“It was new and I wondered how long it would take to get used to this. But, today, I feel great,” Healey said Thursday, adding the atmosphere, his peers and the staff at the courthouse have all helped make the transition from private attorney to judge smooth and enjoyable. “We picked a jury the first day and the trial starts Friday. Everybody has been great and has done anything to help. I felt welcomed and wanted.
“The first day on the bench I was a little nervous and unsure, but we got through it.”
Before being appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, Healey spent 14 years as a partner with Mahon, Mahon & Healey where, as a board certified attorney, he practiced mostly marital and family law.
“The last 10 years, that was 98 percent of what I did,” said Healey, who was born in Jacksonville but moved to Tampa when he was 10 and graduated from Jesuit High. “I’d also do a criminal case here and there and occasionally represent a business client. It was steady work. People would say, ‘How’s business?’ I would tell them for what I do, business is great. Unfortunately, the last time I checked, the divorce rate in Duval County for first time marriages was 70 percent. For second marriages, it’s 50 percent. It’s a sad commentary, frankly.”
After graduating from the University of Florida’s law school in 1980, Healey moved back to Jacksonville and went to work for the State Attorney’s Office under former Mayor Ed Austin. In 1984, Healey left the State Attorney’s Office and went into private practice, focusing on family and marital law and a smattering of criminal defense. “Anything to pay the bills,” he said.
Eventually, Healey realized that like other professions, the law was becoming specialized. The better you were at one or two areas, the more you could make. The more diverse your individual practice, the harder it was to succeed. Marital law and criminal defense also taught Healey an interesting paradoxal lesson about people.
“There’s an old saying that says in criminal defense, the not so good people are at their best and in divorce cases, generally good people are at their worst,” said Healey.
While it may seem like Healey’s ascent to the bench was sudden — he was appointed in March to fill the vacancy created when former County Judge Linda McCallum was shifted to Circuit Court in January — it was actually a several-year process, one in which Healey twice failed to get the nod from the governor.
In 1999, a Circuit Court position was created and Healey decided to apply. After conferring with several people, he opted not to pursue the opening. According to Healey, he was told there was an agenda for the position and he wasn’t on the agenda.
“I was told a particular type of person was going to get the it; a woman was going to get it,” said Healey. “Well, Waddell Wallace got the job. I said, ‘Let that be a lesson learned.”
Last summer, another Circuit Court opening was created and this time Healey actively pursued the job. Knowing he was still a bit of a longshot, Healey decided he’d be content with making it past the local nominating stage and onto the governor’s short list. Name recognition was his goal at the time. It worked.
“I was considered by the governor, but I wasn’t picked. But, that was OK. I was pleased I got as far as I had gotten,” said Healey. “If I had been picked it would have been like a bolt of lightning and I would have been thrilled. But, I wasn’t crushed that I didn’t get it.”
Three times proved the charm for Healey and now that he’s a judge, he admits that the other side of the bench has proven odd. After a 22-year legal career spent trying to persuade a judge and jury to see his way, Healey now find himself the observer. And, so far, it’s been interesting. Just weeks away from being a practicing attorney, Healey says he often hears himself in the young attorneys that appear in his courtroom.
“It’s been odd, but it’s also been neat,” he said. “I have a jury trial the first week and when we were picking the jury, I had to listen to two lawyers ask questions I would typically be asking. My whole perspective has changed. I want to make sure the trial is fair and the trial is clean and there are no problems that would give rise to an appeal. My whole focus is different.”
As a judge, Healey also now finds himself in a unique pool of former lawyers who have changed careers without leaving the law. He must now find a way to become a mentor to young attorneys while being able to avoid alienating local attorneys he still calls friends.
“That’s going to be the fun part of the job. I look forward to working with some of them,” said Healey, referring to dealing with young attorneys. He also said post-trial judge/attorney conversations are nothing new. As a young attorney, he often found himself in a judge’s office seeking guidance and reassurance both when he succeeded and failed in court. “I used to go talk about what I did wrong more than what I did right. I was a decent trial lawyer and I spent some time in front of some great judges here in Duval County. Judge [Major] Harding is now with the Supreme Court and Judge [Ralph] Nimmons is in U.S. District Court. They were two of the greatest. They really taught me how to act in the courtroom, how to try a case and respect for the system and the people in it. It may sound basic, but I learned something every day.”
For the time being, Healey will serve as both teacher and student. While he helps guide novice attorneys through the intricacies and subtleties of the courtroom, he’ll also seek advice from his professional elders. County judges Charles Cofer and Roberto Arias will mentor Healey as he settles into the job. In less than a week, Healey admits he’s bent the ear of both Cofer and Arias.
“I try to split it up,” said Healey. “I’d say I’ve talked to them about and hour and a half apiece with questions about everything from types of cases to how to run the courtroom to the computer system. Things like, ‘Who do I call about this?’”
Interestingly, Healey admitted he had one apprehension about the job. He said while he was in Tallahassee, he was asked if anything about the job made him uneasy.
“Judges tend to get isolated. Your friends are not the same over time because you are the judge and they are lawyers,” said Healey. “That’s bothersome and I’m not sure how it’s going to work out. It’s hard for me to respond when they say, ‘Judge.’ I’m still Russell.”
And, don’t look for that office to change much. There’s a new chair on order — the current one is a loaner — and a couch is on the way. That’s it.
“I’ve always been pretty simple,” said Healey. “There’s not a need for a lot of fancy stuff. I just look forward to doing the work and learning things I don’t know.”