Fair. Firm. Fearless. Thoughtful.
Those were some of the words used to describe the late U.S. District Judge Howell Melton when the Jacksonville chapter of the Federal Bar Association honored his memory last week.
The tribute at the association’s monthly meeting was organized by U.S. Magistrate Judge James Klindt, who began in the profession as Melton’s law clerk.
“Those two years were the highlight of my career. It was such a tremendous experience for a young lawyer,” Klindt said.
The presentation centered on some of the cases Melton heard from the bench, including the United States v. Carlos Lehder, considered by some as the most significant drug prosecution case in U.S. history.
Lehder, one of the leaders of the Medellin drug cartel, was accused of running an operation that smuggled more than three tons of cocaine into the United States from an island near the Bahamas.
Melton heard the seven-month case and upon conviction, sentenced the defendant to life in prison plus 135 years.
Lehder was indicted in 1981 and later was apprehended by Colombian authorities, extradited to the U.S. and in 1987 went on trial in Jacksonville.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Karla Spaulding recalled her experiences at the trial, when she was an assistant U.S. attorney.
When Lehder was arrested, he threatened to have a judge killed each day and also threatened the judges’ families, attorneys and jurors, who were known by numbers instead of names to preserve their anonymity, Spaulding said.
She described the atmosphere during the trial as “tense,” with the judge, attorneys and jurors escorted everywhere they went by heavily-armed U.S. marshals.
“The security in the old courthouse was amazing,” said Spaulding. “There was a SWAT team on the roof and one day, a marshal came into the courthouse with his hand in a tennis bag to hide his machine gun.”
She said Melton was able to keep the jurors at ease. “Judge Melton made it all right,” she said.
Over the following years, Spaulding appeared before Melton as the lead prosecutor and cited his consistent demeanor.
“He was firm and strong, fair and thoughtful,” she said. “I’ve had the pleasure of appearing before many judges. Judge Melton was one of the best.”
Melton also presided over Robinson v. Jacksonville Shipyards, a landmark case that recognized a hostile work environment could form the basis of a sexual harassment lawsuit, and the United States v. Gaffney, an extortion case against Donald Gaffney, a former Jacksonville City Council member and state legislator in which Melton granted a new trial because of jury misconduct.
He also presided over Parker v. Dugger, in which Melton “dealt a blow” to state judges’ authority to override a jury’s recommendation of life imprisonment and instead impose a death sentence,” Klindt said.
Melton’s son, Howell Jr., former managing partner at Holland & Knight, said he’ll always remember his father’s hope concerning the legacy from his time on the bench.
“His philosophy was, ‘I hope it can be said that I was fair and I did my very best.’”