An 'accidental judge' still enjoys her role after 20 years on Miami-Dade County Court

By Taryn Phaneuf | Mar 22, 2016

Miami-Dade County Court Judge Deborah White-Labora  

MIAMI – Using her experience as a lawyer and a knack for solving problems, Miami-Dade County Court Judge Deborah White-Labora has built a career she truly enjoys.

“When you can focus on the benefit you can give people, I think it can be really rewarding,” White-Labora told the Florida Record.

White-Labora started as a private practice lawyer in 1982, until she was hired to serve as a general magistrate in the Miami-Dade Family Division in 1992. Until then, she had no real aspiration to be a judge. But in that position as an attorney appointed to take testimony and recommend decisions on matters associated with a divorce, she realized she liked the opportunity to look beyond a client’s wishes and try to solve the problem.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful experience,” White-Labora said. “I think I was relatively young to get that opportunity.”

She considers herself an “accidental judge.” By taking the route she did, she said she’s been able to use her experience as a litigator to understand the kind of circumstances a lawyer in her courtroom might be experiencing.

“I think it was really essential that I practice law,” she said. “It gives me a sense of what lawyers face. Not everyone had the strongest case - that’s not how it works.”

She said a judge without her background may not recognize that and wonder why an attorney is making a particular argument, which doesn’t appear strong.

“Maybe that’s the only argument that could be made,” she said “Sometimes that’s the best you can do to represent your client the best you can.”

She was appointed to the county court in 1996. In the 20 years that have followed, she has presided over many different kinds of cases and has found a way to enjoy each of her positions because of the impact she has as a judge. But more than drug court or her current position hearing domestic violence civil cases, White-Labora said she particularly enjoyed working on the calendar of mental health cases.

“It was innovative and new. The results were fantastic,” she said.

The proceedings help mentally ill people who commit crimes by ensuring they receive treatment. Because White-Labora saw the same people on a monthly basis over the course of their treatment, she was able to keep track of their progress. She recalled that many people who appeared before her went on to finish college and be successful.

“The onset of mental illness often is in the early 20s. People end up in prison, lives are destroyed, when really they need care,” she said. “It helped a lot of people and it saved a lot of money.”

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