He's the newest county judge
One of a series on local judges.
by Glenn Tschimpke
His robe might be borrowed, but the job is all his. Ron Higbee logged his first days at the Duval County Courthouse as a county judge last week, capping more than 20 years of legal experience.
The fresh face on the county bench poked fun at his looks when posing for a newspaper picture — something about not wanting to break the camera. Well, he may not be as pretty as the previous occupant of his chambers — Linda McCallum, who moved on to the Circuit Court bench last week — but he has a nice personality. Oh, and he promises to prove Gov. Jeb Bush’s appointment of him to the bench was no mistake. Following a few weeks in judge’s college, he’ll be ready to hit the courtroom.
Higbee has a wide breadth of legal experience, from his days as a Naval JAG officer, prosecutor, public defender and private practitioner. He’s seen both sides of the docket. He’s toiled as an assistant state attorney, championing the rights of society against the accused. And he’s been on the other side, working to defend those who could not otherwise afford legal counsel. From his new vantage, he’ll draw from his experience on both sides.
“When you’re a prosecutor, you try to look out for society,” said Higbee. “When you’re a public defender, you have a client that you’re trying to represent, but you’re also looking out for society in that this person is fairly represented. Now I’m going to be sitting back and trying to balance and make sure society is protected and the rights of the individual are protected and cases are disposed of in a timely manner.”
Heavy stuff from a likable guy. But it comes with the job description.
Higbee was born a mile high — as in Denver, the Mile High City. When he was eight, his parents relocated to Virginia. When Higbee was 16, his father, who was a Pepsi executive, fell ill, lost his job and headed south. The family bought a small mom-and-pop motel in Daytona Beach and lived off that for a few years until they upgraded to a small apartment complex. Higbee graduated high school in Daytona Beach and jaunted off to Tallahassee in 1972 for college. He went straight through — except one summer break — to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and government in late 1975.
Law school in Gainesville followed and he graduated with honors from the University of Florida in 1978.
The first phase of his budding legal career began in the Navy as a Judge Advocate General officer. “Join the Navy, see the world,” ads used to tout. Higbee’s adventure on the high sees was a bit less broad.
“I was assigned to a ship for two weeks,” he said. “It was the USS Voge. It was stationed here at Mayport and it was going through overhaul in Boston. We didn’t get underway at all. The first day I was there, we moved from the rear end of the pier to the front end of the pier.”
Higbee has fond memories of his “sea time,” even the quirkiness of the sleeping accommodations on the ship. As a lieutenant junior grade, he was placed in the J.O. (Junior Officers) Jungle, which is a cluster of small berthing compartments for lower ranking officers. Despite being vastly more livable than the enlisted berthings, the lifestyle change was still shock. Cramped quarters and steam pipes snaking through the compartment inches from his pillow made for interesting memories.
“Basically, it was a small four-man room,” he explained. “You had to turn sideways to let the other person go through. The first week wasn’t so bad because there were only two of us. The last week, there were four of us, which made it a lot more cramped. But it was great.”
Sea duty was not where the Navy needed him. The vast majority of his naval career saw Higbee at training bases in Millington, Tenn. and Orlando unraveling the legal dilemmas of the sailors. In addition to civilian law, the service members are held to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Most of Higbee’s cases were small-time, usually junior sailors getting into drugs or running home to straighten out their love lives without telling anyone.
“We didn’t have a lot of desertions,” he said, explaining that deserters leave their command with no intent of returning. “We had a lot of unauthorized absences, which is different.”
Unauthorized absence, in military terms, translates to tardy — from one minute to 29 days.
In mid-1984, Higbee shed his uniform, moved to Jacksonville and took a job as an assistant state attorney, stuck around for a few years then moved across the street to the public defender’s office, defending accused felons.
When not fighting the good fight, he tries to spend as much time with his three sons as possible.
“James is down at [the University of] Florida,” he said of his oldest. “He’s two hours shy of being a senior. He want’s to be a pharmacist. My middle son, John,
is a senior at Bishop Kenny. He just got accepted to Florida and starts in June. And then the youngest is Richard. He lives with me — he’s 13.”
Golf, tennis, or pool? It depends on the son.
“My middle son had never played tennis until last fall so I got him interested in tennis,” he said. “I had not played tennis for years. He fell in love with the game. So he and I play almost every weekend.”
Higbee knows tennis. He’s not a slave to fashion or the latest technological gizmos, but he does sport a newer tennis racket. But every once in a while, he brings out the old reliable.
“On occasion I’ll play with the racket that I bought when I was 18 when I played on the high school team,” he beamed. “It’s a T2000.”
Higbee’s in his late 40s using his old high school gear. Would that be a wooden racket?
“It’s not wood,” he defended his age. “It’s steel. It’s what Jimmy Connors used to play with and was all the rage in high school.”
Knee surgery last October canceled a few family matches, but Higbee’s knee is fine and he’s back on track — or at least at the level he was before to be competitive with John, who has markedly improved.
“I’m not that good, but he’s gone from where I would have to lay off my game a little bit to now he’ll beat me as often I’ll beat him.”
With his oldest son, he used to swipe at golf balls from time to time, but that stopped when college started. Now it’s either tennis or pool with his middle son.