by Richard Prior
General Master Steven Combs finds himself in an enviable position — neither overworked nor underappreciated.
The Clay County jurist, who presided over 3,896 hearings last year, has received the Dignity in Law award from the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar Association.
The presentation was made last month in Orlando for Combs’ “dedication to public service on behalf of Florida families.”
“I preside over portions of family law cases and dependency cases,” he said. “There are issues of a final divorce hearing, or perhaps the temporary placement of a child. Maybe temporary child support, temporary alimony, issues involving property distribution or paternity.
“In Dependency Court, the family’s there because the state, through the Department of Children and Families, has made allegations that one or both of the parents have abused, neglected or abandoned the child. We’re talking about people with substance abuse issues, impulse control issues, mental health issues, poor life skills.
“We’re also talking about people who are just abusive and mean. They’re there because they’ve been alleged to have, either through actions or inactions, harmed their child.”
Combs was chosen from more than a dozen statewide nominees. He is one of 11 masters in the circuit, which includes Clay, Duval and Nassau counties.
He also has been named the Clay County Guardian Ad Litem’s office Child Advocate of the Year for the past two years.
“We feel that he is a very fair person, who listens to both sides of the case,” said Mary Beth Ritterman, the county’s guardian ad litem. “He focuses in on the child. He’s very knowledgeable about children’s needs and very sensitive to the needs of the children. He’s been a wonderful asset for Clay County.”
During the past year, Combs opened the first night court for family law in the state. That innovation was cited in the nominating letter sent to the state bar association on his behalf.
“That’s a program to hear uncontested divorces in the evenings,” he said. “Those are the types of cases that don’t take a lot of time, don’t present a security risk, and there’s not a lot of judicial attention attached.
“But there are a lot of people with jobs out there ... who find it very difficult to come to court during the day and don’t have enough money to hire a lawyer.”
Offering to conduct court at night was only one of Combs’ contributions to the community, according to the nominating letter from the Jacksonville law firm of Bartlett, Heekin, Smith, Greene & Martin:
“In each case where a child is involved, General Master Combs pays the utmost attention to the safety and welfare of the child.”
Following several qualifiers and disclaimers, Combs explained that a “master” is roughly equivalent to a magistrate.
The master concept “likely derived from the Roman law and was imported to the Anglo-American law through the Norman Conquest,” he said.
A magistrate judge in federal court often presides over cases but does not enter an order, Combs explained. Instead, he issues a recommendation, and the district court signs the order.
“Masters fill a role similar to magistrate judges,” he said. “We preside over family law cases, but we don’t enter orders. We enter recommendations, and the circuit judge enters the order.”
Having masters preside over a portion of cases saves money and helps speed up the judicial process.
“There was a time, throughout the state in general, when the state didn’t have the money to fund more judges,” Combs said. “They were able to utilize masters to take over some of the workload the judges had. The judges, then, could concentrate on the more important facets of the case.”
For all the accolades coming his way, Combs nearly became a mathematician, not a lawyer.
As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, he was a handful of courses way from his math major when he took Latin over one summer to meet his foreign language requirement.
“I realized I enjoyed my Latin course much more than my theoretical math course,” he said. “Because I had taken Latin in high school, I realized I had a passion for that.”
Combs, 36, received his undergraduate degree in 1987 as a classics major, studying Latin, Greek and ancient civilizations.
He graduated from the University of Florida’s College of Law with honors in 1991 after serving as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Law and Public Policy.
Combs worked as a staff attorney for several judges after graduation and then was with the Jacksonville firm of Boyer, Tanzler & Boyer. He was in private practice “with a heavy emphasis on family law” when he was named Clay County General Master/Child Support Enforcement hearing officer in January 2001.
“There are very few family law lawyers who, when they start their practice, say, ‘I’m going to exclusively practice family law,’” he said. “You find that you have a knack for dealing with the client.
“You find there’s an immense reward you get from helping somebody that you truly believe needed the help.”
Despite the near-detour into math, Combs felt the pull of the law from an early age.
“I think I wanted to be a lawyer from about the time I was 14,” he said. “It was one of several paths I had to choose from.
“I thought about medicine, as most lawyers will tell you. Probably half the lawyers out there have thought about becoming doctors.
“But with the law, you combine your analytical skills with your writing skills. And ultimately that’s where I settled ... what could I do that I was best suited for.”
For all its rewards, being a general master does have its unsettling moments.
“The job is not without its stress,” Combs said. “There is a lot of personal angst when you see what has happened to many of these children, what they’re going through.”
Combs insists he’s not overworked, even though he heard 900 more cases in 2002 than he had his first year on the bench.
“When I was in private practice, I would get into work early in the morning,” he said. “I remember one week in particular when I slept at the office three nights because I had two trials. That was overwork.
“I feel as though I have my plate full. ... As they continue to expand my responsibilities here, they have asked if I was overworked. I said, ‘When I start complaining, I’ll let you know.’
“Until then, I’m happy to do whatever the court system needs me to do here in Clay County.”