Judge Rodney Smith – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida

Judge Rodney Smith was the second African American judicial nominee to be sent forward by the Trump Administration when he was nominated back in May.  Now, as his nomination finally starts moving, Smith is poised to fill a long-pending vacancy on the court.

Background

A native Floridian, Rodney Smith was born in Orlando in 1974.  Smith graduated from Florida A&M University in 1996 and then from Michigan State University School of Law in 1999.[1]

After graduation, Smith joined the Miami-Dade County State’s Attorney’s Office, working as a prosecutor.[2]  In 2003, he moved briefly to the Office of the General Counsel at the United Automobile Insurance Company and then to the firm of McGrain Nosich & Ganz P.A.[3]  He left the firm a year later to join the Law Office of Rebecca W. Ribler as a Senior Trial Attorney.  In 2007, he shifted again to become Senior Assistant City Attorney for the City of Miami Beach.[4]

In 2008, Smith became a County Court Judge, appointed to the position by then-Republican Governor Charlie Crist.  In 2012, Smith was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to be a Circuit Court Judge on the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida, where he sits to this day.

History of the Seat

Smith has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.  This seat opened on June 2, 2014, when Judge Robin Rosenbaum was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.  On February 26, 2015, Mary Barzee Flores, a former state court judge in Florida, was nominated by President Obama for the vacancy.[5]  However, while Flores had been recommended for the vacancy by the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) formed by Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, Rubio refused to return a blue slip on Flores.[6]  Rubio’s stance was criticized by both Republicans and Democrats who described Flores as an “excellent judge.”[7]  Later, Rubio claimed that Flores had misrepresented her past support for the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations.[8]  With Rubio’s opposition, Flores never got a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and was not confirmed before the end of the Obama Administration.

In October 2017, Smith applied and interviewed with the JNC.  The JNC chose Smith as one of ten finalists to be passed onto the Senators.[9]  After interviews with Rubio and Nelson, Smith interviewed with the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice.  Smith was formally nominated on May 8, 2018.

Legal Career

Smith began his legal career as a state prosecutor in Miami-Dade County, where he served as the Chief of the Juvenile Division and worked in the Career Criminal/Robbery Division.[10]  As the former, Smith was able to secure a conviction against a defendant who emotionally and sexually abused his step-daughter, even though the child’s mother testified against her.[11]

From 2003 to 2007, Smith worked in private practice.  While working for Rebecca Ribler, Smith defended a case against a plaintiff who broke her hip slipping and falling while exiting the defendant’s restaurant.[12]

From 2007 to 2008, Smith worked as Senior Assistant City Attorney in Miami Beach, defending the city against litigation while also prosecuting ordinance violations.  During his time at the office, Smith successfully obtained summary judgment against a plaintiff who had been rendered a quadriplegic after diving into the ocean and striking a rock.[13]

Jurisprudence

Smith served as a County Court Judge in Florida from 2008 to 2012 and has served as a Circuit Judge since 2012.  In the former capacity, Smith heard criminal misdemeanor and traffic matters, civil protective orders, and landlord-tenant and small claims litigation.  As a Circuit Judge, Smith handles major felonies and any civil cases with more than $15000 in controversy.

Over his ten year tenure on state court, Smith has heard approximately 700 cases.  Of these, approximately 3% have been reversed by a higher court, a relatively low reversal rate.[14]  Of the cases in which Smith has been reversed, approximately one in five involved a confession of error by the prevailing party.[15]

Overall Assessment

Smith is a relatively uncontroversial choice for the federal bench.  His judicial record is fairly mainstream and he has not made any controversial statements or actions in his career.  Additionally, his record as a lawyer is fairly varied and it is hard to argue that Smith lacks the ability to be a district court judge.  As such, Smith will likely be confirmed with bipartisan support.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., Rodney Smith: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Press Release, Obama White House Archives, President Obama Nominates Two to Serve on the United States District Courts (Feb. 26, 2015).

[6] Jay Weaver, Rubio Holds Up Obama Nominee He Once Backed for Miami Federal Bench, Miami Herald, Feb. 28, 2016, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/article63008137.html.  

[7] See id. (quoting Tom Spencer).

[8] Marc Caputo and Seung Min Kim, Rubio Breaks Silence on Female Judge, Politico, June 9, 2016, https://www.politico.com/story/2016/06/marco-rubio-judge-mary-barzee-flores-224073.  

[9] David Markus, Breaking — JNC Makes the Cut to 10 Finalists for District Judge, Southern District of Florida Blog, Nov. 29, 2017, http://sdfla.blogspot.com/2017/11/breaking-jnc-makes-cut-to-10-finalists.html.

[10] See Smith, supra n. 1 at 46.

[11] State v. Yanes, No. F01-029698, aff’d, 865 So.2d 507 (Fla. 3d DCA 2003).

[12] O’Brien v. GMRI, Inc. d/b/a Bahama Breeze, Case No. 04-23037 CA 20.

[13] Downs v. City of Miami Beach, et al., Case No. 04-08735 CA 15 and Case No. 06-20861 CIV-HUCK/BANDSTRA, aff’d, 13 So.3d 1064 (Fla. 3d DCA 2009).

[14] See Smith, supra n. 1 at 38.

[15] Id. at 37-41.

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