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A judicial retirement: Martin steps down

After more than a decade on the bench, Collier Circuit Judge Lawrence Martin retired last week.

But the 66-year-old Naples man is not leaving the law – or moving very far.

Martin is returning to practice law in the same building he worked in when then-Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him to the county court bench in 1998. He’ll be handling civil law cases from a third-floor office at 2671 Airport-Pulling Road, just north of the courthouse.

“It’s going to be low-key to start with,” Martin said, adding jokingly that he hopes to get clients through “word-of mouth. People will be under the delusion that I know how a judge thinks.”

For now, Martin, who plays acoustic guitar and water skis, may take a short break to travel with his wife of two years, Donna Lamond Martin. During his retirement, he’ll spend time with his 96-year-old mother, and play golf, tennis and run in marathons.

Martin was a judge known for his knowledge, patience, his good humor, and compliments to attorneys – both losing and winning.

“I’m hopeful I’ll be able to work with him again and collaborate with him,” said attorney Joseph Stewart, who worked in an office next to Martin before he became a judge and is now leasing him an adjoining office at Court Plaza. “I certainly will go to him for his wisdom.”

“You’re not going to find anybody in this town who has a bad word to say about him,” he added. “He’s one of my dearest friends. There were over 300 people at his retirement party. That’s pretty incredible.”

The partygoers – judges, lawyers, friends and relatives – gathered Dec. 2 at the Naples Beach Hotel for the party, which Martin insisted be casual.

Naples attorney Sharon Hanlon, of Zelman & Hanlon, who gathered sponsorships from 37 law firms to pay for the party, called it one of the best attended retirements in years.

“In this economy, that showed the love and respect the attorneys have for Larry Martin,” said Hanlon, Martin’s former partner at the former Vega Brown Stanley Martin & Zelman.

Even Martin was shocked.

“I had no idea I was so popular,” he said. “I’m sure I made a lot of people mad and made a lot of mistakes over the years, but you wouldn’t have known it that night.”

Ted Zelman, another former law partner, called Martin a “tremendous professional.”

“He was just really good at getting along with other attorneys and being courteous to clients, as well,” said Zelman, who also praised his sense of humor.

At the party, Zelman, Stewart and Donald Day recounted humorous stories about Martin. Zelman told of a nasty divorce Martin handled for a male client. One day, Martin was being auctioned off at a charity bachelor auction – billed as a pilot who could fly the winner somewhere for a nice dinner.

“The wife was the winning bidder,” Zelman said of the wife in the divorce, the opposing side. “Her attorney hit the roof, of course. But she and Larry agreed if they didn’t talk about the case, it was OK. I’m sure it was uncomfortable, but he was a good sport.”

Martin was named to the county bench in July 1998 and in May 2003, Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him as a circuit judge. Before that, he worked at several Naples law firms before rising to partner at Vega Brown Stanley Martin & Zelman. After more than two decades, he left in February 1996 to start his solo practice.

He specialized in trial and appellate law, focusing on criminal defense, family law, securities litigation, and general civil cases – attaining the highest rating, AV, in the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory.

So what makes a good judge?

“I have bias against judges who have not actually tried cases as a lawyer,” Martin said. “That gives you an advantage being a judge. It humanizes you if you’re going to rule against someone. You do it a lot more gently because you know a lawyer is going to have to give a client bad news. You can do it gently and compliment them on their job.”

Over the years, Martin presided over various criminal and civil trials. He also handled domestic violence cases for four years, sharing that caseload with other judges. It’s an often emotional court that involves many pro se litigants, those without attorneys.

“I would rather not have people screaming,” Martin said. “I’ve said, ‘Look, this is not open mike night here.’ I told them, “I have one rule: Everything that you say from now on has to have a question mark at the end of it.”

“I’ve never found anyone who could do it,” Martin said of husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends. “I took over a lot of the questioning after I let them say their piece. If you do it the other way, it’s a horror show. I think a psychiatrist’s office is the more appropriate place for that.”

That made it manageable, he said, adding, “I’m not sure everyone would agree with my style. I was like a dad.”

And like a dad, one of Martin’s proudest moments was putting on his daughter, Janeice Martin’s, robes during her induction ceremony after she ran unopposed in 2008 for a county judge seat.

Recollecting his years on the bench, Martin didn’t have to think back far to recall a favorite case.

“One of the ones that was interesting and I enjoyed was the little guy who dropped his trousers, Sofos,” Martin said. “It was more than your average burglary or nasty divorce. … It’s nice as a judge to occasionally find something lighthearted.”

Naples High School senior Nick Sofos let his pants fall down and mooned a crowd at a drama club fundraiser on Nov. 9, 2006. He wore thong underwear to avoid showing more than his buttocks.

He was sent to in-school suspension, 10 days at an alternative school and faced expulsion. His parents sought an emergency injunction so he could continue at Naples High School. County Judge Vince Murphy granted it.

In May 2007, Martin ruled the family should appear before the School Board after the family sought an injunction to stop the expulsion hearing three days before graduation. The family then backed down, agreeing their son wouldn’t attend the graduation as long as he received his diploma.

Martin considered expulsion too harsh. “I felt that was a little bit too severe for the prank he pulled,” he explained. “He wouldn’t be able to go to college the next year.”

“He should not have done it,” Martin said, adding, however, “He wasn’t a flasher. This was not a sexual thing. He was just clowning around, being a class clown. Suspension was more sufficient.”

That case also resulted in one of Martin’s favorite photos in the Naples Daily News, one of him grinning ear-to-ear on the bench. It’s a photo his daughter gave him at his retirement party, enlarged and framed for his new office, where another photo of the father and daughter at her induction will hang.

Those who appeared before Martin praised his style.

“He appreciated preparation and expected the attorneys appearing in front of him to know the rules and be prepared to apply them,” said Beverly Brennan, a Naples family law attorney.

“He gave both sides a fair hearing, as long as you weren’t wasting his time,” she added. “I always had the sense that he was really listening to me; he wasn’t waiting for me to finish talking so he could say what he’d already decided to say.”

Martin spent the last year in family court, mostly handling divorces – because that’s where less senior circuit judges are assigned. For a short time before that, he handled general civil cases. “If I had my choice, that’s where I would have been,” he said. “It’s more law and more intellectual.”

By retiring before a judge’s mandatory retirement age, 70, Martin will be able to practice the law he loves. However, he will miss his judicial assistant, his JA, Sherry Lucas, who is “like family” after being with him for 28 years, beginning when he was a lawyer.

“I greatly appreciate the years she spent with me and how courteous and competent she was for all those years,” he said. “She did a spectacular job.”

When a judge leaves, JAs have to find another job or state position, or hope an incoming judge wants them.

Another person who will miss Martin is his daughter.

“It has been tremendously rewarding to be able to walk off the bench and into his chambers to share a story or ask a question,” Janeice Martin said. “I’m so grateful to have had the chance to serve simultaneously with him. Everyone already misses having him here with us in the building.”

But she’s glad he will remain nearby, as he has throughout her career as a lawyer and judge.

On Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Crist will interview candidates for the vacancy. Five recommendations by the 20th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission have been whittled to three: Collier Magistrate James McGarity, Lee County Magistrate Lee Ann Schreiber, and Assistant State Attorney John L. Burns in Charlotte County.

Due to shuffling in the 20th Judicial Circuit, which also includes Lee, Hendry, Glades, and Charlotte counties, Martin’s position isn’t open. Charlotte Circuit Judge James Shenko, who splits his time two weeks monthly presiding over Lee Circuit cases, will take Martin’s post in July. If another sitting judge doesn’t take Shenko’s place, Crist’s choice will fill that vacancy.

© 2011 Scripps Newspaper Group – Online

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