His legal career has lasted over 50 years
by Glenn Tschimpke
No matter how it’s phrased, 41 years is a long time to do anything. Two score and one, four decades, or 492 months, Howell Melton has donned the black robe of justice as both a circuit and federal judge overseeing thousands of cases for longer than just about anyone.
To put it in perspective, President Dwight Eisenhower was just leaving office when Melton assumed his spot on the bench of the 7th Judicial Circuit in early 1961. The Bay of Pigs fiasco occurred later that year and Alan Shepard was the first American to hurtle into space in the Mercury rocket. Mike Ditka was the Sporting News’ NFL rookie of the year, Bill Russell was the NBA’s MVP and Roger Maris hit 61 home runs for the New York Yankees that year.
With a judicial career that traces back four decades and a legal career that dates back to 1948, it’s little wonder Melton shifted to senior status 11 years ago. It gives him a chance to slow down from the the 500-case-a-year pace regular federal judges keep.
“The work that you do after you attain senior status, you do on a voluntary basis,” said Melton. “You have more flexibility in deciding which cases you’re going to take. You don’t have to take any cases after you become a senior judge if you don’t want to.”
Melton still handles about 75 cases a year that run the gamut of civil and criminal litigation. After a long career, he maintains he still has some good years left in him. A long time St. Augustine resident, Melton still makes the drive to Jacksonville a few days a week. Total retirement is not in the cards yet.
“I think you stay more healthy maintaining an active life both mentally and physically,” he noted. “I’ve been a judge for almost 42 years. Of course, if you enjoy what you’re doing, you tend to want to continue to do that. I have enjoyed being a judge. I have always enjoyed the law. You never can learn all there is to know about the law. It’s an awesome responsibility and also a great deal of self satisfaction to know that you’re doing your best to administer the law on a fair and equal basis to everyone. I just enjoy the legal work and the work as a judge. Going into a courtroom after all these years, I’m still impressed and have a feeling of great respect for the law.”
Melton grew up in Mayo, Fla, a speck on the map about 45 minutes west of Lake City on the cusp of Florida’s boggy Great Bend. His father brought the family there from Atlanta to pursue logging work when Melton was a year old.
“For many years, we didn’t have a street light,” he remembered. “In later years, we had a streetlight, which was a great attraction to all of us.”
In an “it’s a small world” anecdote, one of Melton’s high school teachers was the mother of local attorney Bill Birchfield.
The allure of law took hold of Melton early as he watched his brother Holmes.
“My brother was active in politics,” he said. “He was a state representative from Lafayette County and a county judge over there. I just became interested in being a lawyer.”
Like those before him and those after, Melton’s experiences in his early twenties became the template of “same story, different generation: college boy is sent off to fight a war.” After a couple years at the University of Florida, he was sent to World War II’s European Theater to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.
“I had gone to Lawton, Okla. and was trained in artillery,” said Melton of his Army training. “But about the time that I completed my training, the war became worse. So the artillery was important, but the infantry became real important. I spent about 18 months in the European Theater and I stayed in Europe until after the war had ended with Germany.”
Getting home in a timely fashion proved to be an obstacle for him because he was unmarried at the time. “The way that you got home was on a point system,” he explained. “If you had a wife and children, that gave you points. I had no points.”
He and a few buddies figured out an alternate way to get back to the States through the Coast Guard.
“I learned you could sign up for a foreign trip with the Coast Guard — the foreign trip being to the United States.”
They joined the Coast Guard in France and road a cargo ship that had carried supplies to Europe.
“But coming back to this country it had no ballast,” he said. “It was a very rough trip coming back. We had numerous storms. In fact, I can recall we lost more that we gained the day before. It was very rough seas.”
Melton was discharged from the Coast Guard in Portland, Maine in 1946 after three years in the military. He returned to Gainesville, graduated with his law degree two years later and wasted no time launching his legal career.
“I caught a bus from Gainesville to St. Augustine to talk with Mr. Frank Upchurch about a position that he might have open. I went with him in August 1958 and became a partner with him and his son in 1961.”
While helping run a general practice firm, Melton met his wife of over 50 years, Catherine, at his law office in St. Augustine.
“Her uncle was a man by the name of Herbert Wolfe,” he said. “He was a very prominent man politically and otherwise. He had an office in the sixth floor with me. She came up to see him and she knew the secretary. The secretary thought about me and brought her in and introduced me to Catherine. That was the beginning of a romance that culminated in a marriage approximately a year and a half later.”
Melton joined the circuit bench at a busy time for the judiciary. In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that all dependents who were provided an attorney by the State were entitled to a retrial.
He stepped up to the federal bench in 1977 where he has remained to this day.
Looking back, he can smile on a life that has been full of successes. His son Howell Jr. is managing partner of Holland and Knight’s Orlando office. His daughter Carol is senior vice president of Viacom in Washington, D.C. At nearly 80, he still has a job that affords him as little or as much leisure as he chooses. He’s still married to the girl he fell in love with 50 years ago.
Despite his lightened legal load, Melton manages to keep busy.
“You’d be surprised,” he pointed out. “When you don’t have something that you have to do, you wind up doing more. When you’re at home, there’s always something to fix. Let me correct that. Repair is really not in my field to a large extent. But there are a lot of things to do. You want to check on your plants and flowers and you need to blow off the patio. And you don’t get underway as quickly as you do when you have to come to work. By the time you get dressed and read the paper, half the morning is gone. It’s almost time for lunch.”