Hank Coxe: Lawyer, leader and problem-solver

Insight from attorney known for high-profile cases, pro bono work.

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  • | 10:30 a.m. May 7, 2018
  • The Bar Bulletin
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Hank Coxe struck up a lot of conversations with customers when he was pumping gas in Jacksonville in the 1970s.

None impacted his life more than the talk he had with the legendary, late Ed Austin, who was Jacksonville’s city general counsel at the time. Several days earlier, Coxe learned he had passed The Florida Bar exam, adding that to his membership in the Virginia Bar. 

Austin said Harry Shorstein, who was at the time chief assistant state attorney for the 4th Judicial Circuit, had told him he was looking to add two people to his staff. Austin helped connect them and Coxe was hired two days after his interview at a salary of $10,000.

Coxe said he remains forever in their debt, adding there was no good reason to hire him.

It’s where Coxe began a career that has seen him become a titan in the legal community. It’s a career that was bolstered by countless supporters along the way.

Now a director at The Bedell Firm, the criminal defense expert has represented high-profile clients and taken on important legal issues on a pro bono basis, including the defense of children charged as adults. 

Coxe also has served in key voluntary roles, such as president of the Jacksonville Bar Association and The Florida Bar. He also served on the Florida Supreme Court Innocence Commission, the Judicial Qualifications Commission and the Florida Constitution Revision Commission. 

While a recent recipient of the American Inns of Court 11th Circuit Professionalism Award presented in the U.S. Supreme Court, Coxe may be best known for his public humor.

Hank and Mary Coxe.
Hank and Mary Coxe.

More importantly, the job in the State Attorney’s Office was where Coxe met his wife, Mary, who is clearly the mainstay of their family.

They were married in 1980 and have three children: Katie, Matson and Anne (all of whom are attorneys) and four grandchildren, including their newest grandson, who was given the Henry Matson Coxe name shared by four generations before him.

Coxe felt the love of his family, friends and his colleagues after he was diagnosed in 2016 with esophageal cancer that had spread to his liver. He unexpectedly found a lasting bond with the nurses who cared for him during a near-death experience at Baptist Medical Center.

A picture of two of the nurses is his computer’s screensaver – a daily reminder of the support he encountered along the way to becoming cancer-free since 2016.

He continues to be a workaholic, often spending 10 hours a day at the office and in the courtroom.

Here is an edited version of a recent interview with Coxe, who has been a member of the Jacksonville Bar Association since 1975.

What did you learn while working in the State Attorney’s Office?

I always describe it as you learn what you want to learn. I guess I got it from both of my parents. I was raised that you just work hard all of the time, not some of the time. I came to Bedell because the parking lot was always full on Saturdays.

Part of that is I’m a big believer that to learn, you stay quiet and listen. You may ask questions once in a while, but telling other people what you know doesn’t accomplish much. 

What was your first case?

The first case I ever prosecuted, the jury acquitted the defendant in seven minutes, maybe 10 minutes. It was a good education. 

You learn by making mistakes, obviously, and in this particular case I didn’t know much about jury selection or what to ask. They (the jurors) were discharged and the forewoman ran out of the courtroom and down the hallway. Breaking into a coin-operated machine (the defendant’s charges) does not generate that kind of emotion.

So, I asked the bailiff, “Do you have any idea what that was about?”

He said, “Her husband’s on trial for first-degree murder down the hall in Courtroom 5.”

I went, “Hmm. I probably should have asked that question.”

Is that why mentoring others is so important to you?

I think mentoring to me isn’t to have some organized approach. Mentoring is to just make yourself available when people ask.  Mentoring is only as effective as the interest in a person wanting to learn from someone else. Still, to this day, I may pick up the phone and call Sandy D’Alemberte, Martha Barnett, Major Harding or others and ask what they think.

There is nothing superior to the advice I can get from the lawyers at The Bedell Firm.

I wrestled with whether I was going to apply to be on the Florida Constitution Revision Commission up until two hours before the 5 p.m. Sunday deadline. 

I called Sandy at about 2:30 and said, “Sandy, should I do it or not?” We talked about it and then he said, “Go for it.”

What was your hesitancy?

I wasn’t nearly as qualified as the other people applying. Their applications were online and they were all stars. Nobody likes to apply and then not get something. We’re all guilty of that ego trip. You’d be kidding if you weren’t.

That’s one of the reasons I think you don’t see more applications for judgeships. 

I think people who have accomplished a lot are unwilling to be knocked down a notch. And I respect that.

Did you ever consider applying to be a judge?

No. Ed Austin used an expression when he was asked if he was interested in being a judge. 

He said, “I made a decision in life of ‘do I want to carry the ball or do I want to be a referee?’ I’d rather carry the ball.”

Did you always know you wanted to carry the ball? 

No. I think that’s what comes.

I’ll give you a good example. On my second day at the State Attorney’s Office, David Robbins handed me some files and said, “go up to the podium and you call these cases.”

I almost froze. I wasn’t expecting it.

I can remember it to this day. It was as if you were going through puberty and your voice was changing. My voice cracked and I’ll never forget the judge screaming, “What did you say? I can’t hear you.”  I’d say it again with this voice cracking. The judge would yell out again. I thought, “Oh, this job is not meant for me.” But you stay at it and stay at it.

Do you still get nervous?

The nervousness before a trial now is the same as it was the first time. I think everybody has it. 

It’s a fear of failure. You don’t want to fail and you don’t want to fail on behalf of the client. I have spent many late nights walking the neighborhood streets practicing what I’m going to say.

You do a lot of pro bono work, sometimes on big issues, with the Cristian Fernandez case probably gaining the most publicity. How did that come about?

In the course of a lawyers’ meeting about helping Bryan Gowdy with the Terrance Graham resentencing after the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Cristian Fernandez was indicted for first-degree murder. I don’t remember who brought it up, but someone suggested we extend an olive branch to the Public Defender’s Office and say, “We’d be happy to help you.” My assumption is it had to have been Buddy Schulz. Eventually, we had eight lawyers from five firms.

Did the Public Defender’s Office take you up on it?

They did in words. That’s the only way I can answer that question. Matt Shirk was the public defender. We realized very soon that they were not paying much attention to us and they weren’t taking us up on what we had to offer, although some of the assistant public defenders were outstanding. It just went south from there.

What was it about that case that was so important to the group?

From my end, I think this was not a fair fight. This is a 12-year-old kid who needed help, as he was being hammered by the great and sovereign state of Florida for a set of facts that had no business being in adult court. (Eventually, the team of volunteer attorneys represented Fernandez, whose case was moved to juvenile court.)

Why is doing pro bono work important to you?

I think that comes from my parents’ and Mary’s influences. Why are you on this earth if it isn’t to help people who can’t help themselves? 

Who’s the better lawyer, you or your wife?

She is, no question about it. First of all, you’ve got to start with the premise that she’s a lot smarter. She went to Wellesley (College) and then Duke (University) law school. Then she produces children who go to the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt and Columbia. They’re all products of her, not me. I’ll be the first to admit it and they will, too. The kids will say, “We didn’t get it from you, Dad.”

She has mandated that I never refer to her as my best friend. 

Who are some of the people you have admired most over the years?

Some who come to mind sitting here are Sandy D’Alemberte, Martha Barnett, Buddy Schulz, Ray Ehrlich, Major Harding, Ed Austin, Eddie Booth. Harry Shorstein, Pat Seitz and Bob Josefsberg. Give me five minutes and I’ll name another 20, beginning with John Devault, Charlie Pillans, Janet Reno, Susan Black, Mark Hulsey, Buddy Nimmons and Gerald Tjoflat. How much time have I got?

Let’s talk about your cancer diagnosis at whatever comfort level you have. 

As often happens, it was asymptomatic and found by luck, meaning a really good doctor. It was an experience that makes you revalue everything around you – your family, your friends, your colleagues, the medical community and whether you actually served any purpose on this earth.

You’ve been cancer-free since 2016. Do you feel blessed?

I feel extremely fortunate. If there were a higher authority making these decisions, then I would be sitting here having a drink with Betty Rosenbloom, Bill Brinton, Chris Milton, Bob Head and Rose D’Amour. I was equally fortunate to have encountered some of the greatest people I had not known, the greatest among them were intensive care nurses. I asked each of them, “How do you do it? What makes you help people who you know don’t have a prayer?” When the charge nurse offered to take me for one last walk down the hallway before I left the hospital, she said, “Seven nights ago, they’re all standing around asking the same question about you. Why would you help him? He doesn’t have a prayer.”