OKEECHOBEE — After he completed law school in 1982, Jerry Bryant worked as a lawyer, but his heart’s desire was to become a judge. His career as a county judge began in January 2007, and he enjoyed every minute of it, he said. He actually ran four times before he was elected, but it was worth it. “It was hard, and it hurt when I didn’t win, but I really wanted to do it,” he said. A judge’s term is six years, and after he served his first term, he ran again, this time unopposed which he said was nice.
Unfortunately, when that term ended, he was 70 years old, and that is the mandatory retirement age for judges, so he had no choice but to retire. He was very happy that his successor turned out to be Bill Wallace, though. “We are a lot alike,” he said. “He has his own style and is doing a wonderful job, but in some respects, we are much alike. We both like people and like to get along with our co-workers.”
There are two kinds of judges here, he explained, a circuit judge and a county judge. They have different jurisdictions by constitutional statutes. The 19th Circuit consists of Okeechobee, Martin, Indian River and St. Lucie counties, and 99% of the judges live in the other counties. He was the only judge who lived in Okeechobee. The other counties had two or three county judges. Miami-Dade County probably has 20. Because he was the only county judge in Okeechobee County, he was responsible for everything in Okeechobee. In other counties, the judges share the responsibilities.
Weekend first appearances are normally assigned to the judges who live in that county, so that meant he was assigned to every single weekend. He asked the chief judge what he was supposed to do if he needed time off, and he was told he would need to find someone to cover for him. By law, anyone who is arrested must have first appearance within 24 hours no matter when they are arrested — weekend, Christmas, Easter, hurricanes — anytime, so a judge must be available for these. Eventually, the chief judge changed it so he could have one weekend a month off and then two weekends a month, and finally it got to the point where he only had to cover one weekend per month. Martin and Indian River counties, which have many more judges, fill in the other weekends.
Judges are not given specific vacations but are encouraged to take six weeks off every year. They do not have a set schedule. They just must get the job done.
He was often asked if his job was difficult and he said, “It was hard sometimes interpreting the evidence that you are hearing and the law so you can make a fair ruling, but if you are prepared and you’ve got the experience … That’s one good thing about having 25 years of experience. I really understood the law, and I could apply it.”
“It’s easy to make a ruling in criminal court a lot of times, but then you’ve got to sentence somebody. When I was running for judge, you’d be surprised how many people would ask if I was gonna be a ‘hang ’em judge,’ if I would throw the book at them. I always said I would be stern but fair. Then I got in the courtroom, and I’d see a person who’d done something wrong. He’s got a wife, two or three kids. He’s got a house, car payments. He’s got a boss, who only has a couple employees trained to do the job. So, this guy makes a mistake — not out hurting somebody. I’m not talking about that. I have to weigh all of those things, take all of that into consideration without hurting the employer too bad, without making the guy lose his house and his car and hurting his wife and kids. You got to take all that into consideration. Some judges don’t. I never understood that. I think that’s all part of the picture you’re supposed to look at. A lot of times people disagreed with me, but I slept at night. My job was to be fair and impartial. I think if you are going to be fair, you have to consider everything that impacts the victim and the defendant.”
When he first became a judge, weekend first appearances were done at the courthouse, but this meant there had to be a deputy at the front door of the courthouse, a deputy at the front door of the courtroom, a bailiff, a judge and a clerk and someone down in the control room monitoring all the cameras. All those people got a minimum of two hours overtime pay even if they were only there 15 minutes. Judge Bryant did it a couple times and decided they should use the hearing room over at the jail instead. That is what the room is for, he said. This meant he did not need any of those people, because there were already deputies on duty at the jail. He took a recording device with him and the defense attorney met him there. He wrote his own orders afterward. It saved a lot of overtime for the sheriff’s office.
During the week, the bailiff would have picked up all the paperwork on the first appearances, and there were usually five to 10 of those. He gave them to the judge, who read them before going into court. They did the first appearances via video from the jail. Then, if there was a detention hearing for a juvenile, they would bring them over from Fort Pierce, and those hearings were done right after first appearances.
After that, it depended what day it was. One day he would do the criminal docket. Twice a month, he had arraignments. Docket call was once a month. He had motions and plea days a couple of times a month and trials every six weeks. Small claims day took half a day. Traffic court took half a day. Then he had time in the office where he did research and wrote orders and correspondence and other things.
One of the most amusing things he can remember happening in his courtroom was during a bond hearing when he set a bond, and the defendant said, “Look here, dude.” Two deputies immediately walked over close to the guy, and Judge Bryant looked at his bailiff and said, “Did he just call me ‘dude’?” The guy said, “I’m sorry. I meant Your Honor.”
He said he was always confused by the people who came in to fight evictions. It never failed that they would list all the horrible things wrong with the place. It had mold. It had holes in the floor. It had holes in the roof. It was falling apart. It was making their daughter sick, but then they always ended by saying, “Please don’t make us move.”
He believes one of his biggest achievements was drug court. Okeechobee was the sixth county in Florida to begin a misdemeanor drug court. The benefit of drug court is if you go through the process and successfully complete it, they drop the charges against you. You can get your records sealed and expunged and lawfully deny you were ever arrested. After the first class of misdemeanor drug court was complete, they started a felony drug court. Then, the Department of Juvenile Justice came to him and asked if he was going to start a juvenile drug court, and he ran that by the chief judge, too. Next thing they knew, that was going strong as well. There have been about 300 people through the programs. “It was one of the most rewarding things I have experienced,” he said.
Lest you think Judge Bryant is perfect, he does have a fault. At one time, he had a codicil to his will specifying that at his funeral, he wanted all the attendees to arrive and be seated before his coffin was wheeled in. “Everyone who knows me knows I am always late. This has been a lifelong shortcoming of mine. Why change after I am dead?” he said. This has since been removed from his will, possibly at the behest of his wife, Carol, who is always on time and usually early.