On Aug. 27, General Magistrate Lester B. Bass was working in his office in the Duval County Courthouse, thinking it was just another day.
It was, until he was advised to stand by for a telephone call from Tallahassee.
When the phone rang, Bass picked it up and heard, “Lester, this is Rick Scott.”
The governor was calling to let Bass know he was the 4th Judicial Circuit’s new county court judge. He is taking over the seat formerly held by Russell Healey, whom the governor recently had appointed as a Circuit Court judge.
“He helped make a poor kid from North Carolina’s dream come true,” said Bass.
From Durham, N.C., with a father who was a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier and a mother who worked in a restaurant, Bass wasn’t exposed to the legal profession at home, but he knew people who were.
“My two best friends growing up were twins and both of their parents were lawyers. Watching them and admiring them was what inspired me to go into the law,” said Bass. “The father was a law professor and the mother was a legal aid attorney. They were advocates for the underdog. That inspired me to be a public interest lawyer myself.”
Bass completed undergraduate studies at Duke University and then in 1988 earned his J.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.
When he went to a public interest job fair in Atlanta, he stopped by a booth staffed by a group from Jacksonville, where he found his first job and a new home.
“I met a young man named Don Freeman from Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. They flew me down and I loved the city. I loved the river. I loved the beaches. It was my kind of town,” Bass said.
He has served as a general magistrate and hearing officer in Duval County Court since 2003. In addition to JALA, his work in public interest law over the past 25 years includes assistant state attorney in the 4th Judicial Circuit and assistant public defender in the 13th Judicial Circuit in Hillsborough County.
Bass also practiced with the law firm of Bivens, Jones & Associates and as a solo practitioner.
When he’s not hearing cases, he is active in the community. He has served as district chairman for Mohawk District Boy Scouts of America, is a former board member for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America North Florida Chapter and a former member of the Supreme Court Task Force on Treatment-based Drug Courts.
He also is active in the Florida Family Law Inn of Court, Florida Association of Drug Court Professionals, National Association of Drug Court Professionals, D.W. Perkins Bar Association and The Jacksonville Bar Association.
He said his experience as a magistrate, hearing cases involving family and dependency law, Baker Act hearings and civil traffic violation hearings will serve him well on the county bench.
“One of the great things about being a magistrate is we hear a number of pro se cases — where litigants don’t have lawyers. I think in the county court, you also hear a lot of people who don’t have lawyers. They have to be treated just as fairly as if they did have a lawyer. Respect them, be fair to them and give them a fair hearing and decision,” Bass said.
County Judge Charles Cofer, who is assisting Bass in his transition, agreed that the depth and breadth of experience his new colleague brings to the county court bench will be an asset.
“The more experience you have, the better job you do,” said Cofer. “He has a leg up.”