Sometimes children follow their parents’ paths when choosing a career.
Duval County Judge Charles Cofer followed Perry Mason and Atticus Finch.
But the son of a Methodist minister and chemistry teacher sprinkled in characteristics of his parents’ jobs, as well.
“I had great admiration for what they did in helping to educate people and helping people in distress,” said Cofer.
His legal career has included more than 18 years as an assistant public defender before being appointed a county judge in July 1998.
The 63-year-old Cofer announced his retirement from bench this morning in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott. The governor will appoint someone to fill Cofer’s term, which ends Jan. 7, 2019.
There has long been talk that Cofer is planning to run for public defender. On Wednesday, he said it “really wouldn’t be appropriate at this point” to address the issue.
However, Cofer said, “I imagine at some point after my retirement, I’ll be doing something. Even though I’m retiring as a judge, I’m not retiring from life.”
He enjoys the variety
Whatever he does next, it’s clear Cofer has enjoyed being a judge.
Unlike circuit court, where judges are assigned to specific divisions, county judges regularly rotate through first appearance court, traffic court and criminal and civil duties.
That variety has kept him energized, Cofer said.
He probably most enjoys the criminal cases because of his time as an assistant public defender.
“That’s kind of my roots,” he said.
Much of the civil side is handling cases like evictions, collections and small claims court. While those may seem routine, they often are extremely emotional, particularly evictions.
On one side you have people — sometimes families — about to be displaced and potentially become homeless. The other side could be a landlord who needs the rent money to pay a mortgage.
“It’s very difficult,” he said.
Some cases he presides over allow him to lean on the zoology side of his double major at Duke University.
The genetics classes help him understand expert testimony from DNA experts.
When there’s testimony dealing with DUI breath-test instruments, his days in an organic chemistry class come in handy. “I’ve used those instruments,” he said.
Those courses he took because his mother wanted him to be a doctor have come in handy.
When Cofer was a young attorney, he had the good fortune of practicing before former County Judge John Marees. The judge took time to mentor attorneys, telling them if they were on track or not.
“He always did it in a way that didn’t bruise you too badly,” said Cofer, who graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law.
The most important lessons Cofer learned from Marees dealt with civility and professionalism.
He liked that Marees was approachable, never having the regal aspect that some judges develop. “It’s what we call robe-itis,” Cofer said.
He has followed Marees’ example of mentoring those new to the profession. He wants to help them develop good habits early in their careers.
When a new assistant public defender or prosecutor is assigned to his division, Cofer offers to evaluate a case, once it’s resolved.
There are a lot of ways judges can deal with young attorneys.
“I’m in the try not to bruise too badly category,” he said.
Sink or swim
Much of the mentoring Cofer received came when he was a new assistant public defender.
It was a job he sought after the occasional lunches he had with Alan Chipperfield, who would talk about the interesting work he was doing as an assistant public defender.
At that time, Cofer was a member of the litigation department at Mahoney Hadlow & Adams.
“But I wasn’t really litigating,” he said.
The high caseload, never having handled criminal cases and immediately hitting the ground initially made the new job in the Public Defender’s Office “frightening,” Cofer said.
“It truly is like throwing someone in the pool and saying, ‘learn how to swim,’” he said.
The first day as an assistant public defender, he was greeted by a 10-inch tall stack of files. “They were thin files so there were a lot of them,” Cofer said.
His division chief told a colleague to show Cofer the ropes. The colleague took about half the files and Cofer closely watched him as he worked that day.
“I tried to imitate him as best I could,” he said.
At the end of the day, he thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”
While preparing for the next day, the colleague gave Cofer a quick wave, signaling he was on his own.
During the more than 18 years in the office, Cofer was involved in 63 jury trials, including 26 homicide trials. He held many roles in the department, including serving as chief of the felony and juvenile divisions and chief of county and circuit courts.
As county court chief, he was in charge of supervising and training new attorneys.
Leaving a job he loves
Becoming a judge seemed a natural next step for Cofer.
“If you have a real love for the law and our court system, I think most everyone thinks about the possibility of being a judge at some point,” he said.
He believes the transition from the Public Defender’s Office to the bench was fairly smooth when he was appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1998. He was re-elected three times, most recently in 2012.
Cofer’s years as an assistant public defender taught him how to analyze a case, a skill he said he uses as a judge.
“Most of the time, just knowing a little bit about the case, I can anticipate what the good attorneys are going to do,” he said. “Sometimes I know before they know.”
There are many parts of the job he will miss, including mentoring young attorneys and the camaraderie he shares with his peers.
He strongly believes in the old adage if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.
“I really love doing this work,” he said.
On a recent vacation, Cofer and his wife, Emily, watched their oldest daughter’s sons, who are just shy of turning 4 and 2. (Their youngest daughter has a 4-month-old son.)
As much as he enjoyed that, Cofer said he missed getting up in the morning, putting on a suit and going to work.
Knowing that — and knowing the privilege it is to serve as a judge — some of his colleagues’ initial reaction is to ask Cofer why he’s retiring.
“The best thing I can tell them is sometimes you have to give up something you love to do for something that you feel you have to do,” he said.
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