On a Friday evening, I learned that Judge Ulmer had passed two days earlier. Many lawyers practicing today may not have had the privilege of appearing in his courtroom or interfacing with this gentle, smiling man. When I learned of his passing I became emotional and tears came to my eyes.
While he was sitting as Chief Judge, a case I filed on behalf of a client was assigned to his section. The defendant’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss and unilaterally set it for hearing on Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the year for those of the Jewish faith. I am Jewish and those who practice the faith are prohibited from working on that day. It is our day of atonement.
I called the attorney, explained my dilemma (after asking him why he unilaterally set the motion for hearing) and requested that he schedule another day. He refused, and I filed a motion for continuance and set it for hearing.
I had never practiced in Judge Ulmer’s court and when I heard his name I could only conjure up visions of a conservative, staid, old line Pinellas County family. I then made the illogical leap to prejudice.
At the start of the hearing, the Judge listened to my motion and, before the other lawyer could speak, incredulously asked him: “Do you oppose this motion?” The reply was “Yes.” The Judge folded his hands and looked at me. I was certain he was going to deny the motion and I bowed my head, anticipating a lecture on motion calendaring. Instead, he asked me if I was aware of Florida Statute 683.19. I was not. He explained that it was a newly enacted statute which gave him discretion – as the Chief Judge of the Circuit – to close the Courthouse on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. I thought for sure that he was going to explain why he wouldn’t do it.
Instead, he again asked the other lawyer if he was sure he wouldn’t consent to the motion. Again the lawyer said “No.” The Judge then gave his ruling, all the while staring at the opposing attorney: “I can’t force you to agree to something here, but I can close the Courthouse that day and I am.” Smiling at me he said: “Mr. Englander, please prepare the Order.”
I will never forget that moment and those words. My eyes filled with tears then, and they do as I write this now. Walking out of his chambers, I beamed with pride over our judicial system and Judge Ulmer. My heart was filled with the knowledge that from that day forward, I no longer had to be discreet about my faith; something I had done since enduring weekly fist fights in junior high school – simply because of my religion. Although I was a lawyer, theoretically schooled in the First Amendment, I never fully embraced the notion that it protected me. This wasn’t Brown v Board of Education, but for me it was a milestone.
So Judge Ulmer, thank you. Your order continued the hearing, but more importantly, it changed me forever. It tasked me with personal pride, respect for our judicial system that I had never before known, and a deep sense of courageous professionalism which I hope that I embrace and demonstrate every day that I practice law.