An Interview with the Honorable Robin Rosenbaum Circuit Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
By Christopher J. Wahl
Q. Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
A. I did not know what I wanted to do when I went to college, and I happened to take a small seminar on the U.S. Supreme Court, where all we did was read through Supreme Court opinions and then discuss and debate them. I was a junior when I took that class, and I had taken pretty much every other possible type of class, from meat science and management, to oil painting, to genetics. I had enjoyed those other classes, but I felt something completely different when I was in the Supreme Court seminar. I recognized that I really loved the law because it was a completely different feeling than what I had when I was studying other things, which I also enjoyed, but it just wasn’t the same. And I knew at that time, and I think it was because I was reading these Supreme Court opinions, and we were debating them all the time, that at the same time that I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, I knew that I hoped one day that I might be able to become a judge.
Q. Did you know any lawyers while you were growing up?
A. Not really. My grandfather had been a lawyer, but he sort of ran the family business, and he passed away when I was about five, and he was the only lawyer in the family.
Q. After law school, you worked in the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. What was that experience like?
A. That was great. It was like four years of graduate school in how to be a lawyer. The people were really smart, really interesting, and really just a lot of fun. I really learned how to write like a lawyer when I was there. I also had the opportunity to argue motions in district courts all around the country. And that was a lot of fun. Basically what we did was that we defended the constitutionality of federal laws and the policies and procedures of the agencies that administer them. So it was really exciting, and a fun place to learn how, as a practical matter, to be a lawyer.
Q. Eventually you made your way to South Florida and worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. How did that experience compare to your experience at Main Justice?
A. That was also a great experience. I learned how to try a case when I was at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I had tried a few cases before, but I had never tried them frequently enough to become comfortable doing it. It was a lot of fun to learn how to try cases, and it was very satisfying to investigate these large financial crimes, where elderly or otherwise vulnerable people were victims, and to feel like I was making a positive contribution to prevent that type of thing from happening again. I just really enjoyed the experience, and I worked with great people there as well. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with great people everywhere I’ve gone.
Q. You later became a federal magistrate judge. Why did you decide to try to become a magistrate judge?
A. I had always wanted to try to be a judge. The reason was that the law is very important to me. I love the law, and I think our system of justice and our rule of law is really key to having a democracy. It’s extremely important. If you feel that passionately about something, or at least, if I do, I want to be a part of trying to shore that up and make sure that it continues to function to its best ability. I just wanted to be a part of doing that, and so that’s why I decided to try to become a magistrate judge.
Q. What was your experience like in that position?
A. It was a good experience. It was my first experience as a judge, so I learned a tremendous amount from it. There are a lot of things as a magistrate judge that you get to do. You get to be the first interaction that people have with our criminal justice system. If somebody is arrested, the first appearance is before a magistrate judge. The magistrate judge decides whether counsel should be appointed. The magistrate judge decides what kind of bond should apply. I felt that that was a really great opportunity to allow the public to see how our justice system works. I felt really privileged to be able to be a part of it.
Q. You went on to become a district court judge. How did that experience compare to your experience as a magistrate?
A. It’s very similar. There are obviously a couple of differences. One difference is that you’re not doing magistrate court anymore, but the district judges and the magistrate judges work on exactly the same cases, and on exactly the same types of motions. Of course, the difference is that, if you’re the magistrate judge, if it’s dispositive, you’re writing a report and recommendation rather than an order, whereas, as a district judge, you’re writing it as an order. At least in my case, although I know that it’s not the case with all magistrate judges, but at least for me, I had significantly more trials as a district judge than I did as a magistrate judge. So that was a great opportunity as well. And of course, as a district judge, you’re able to try criminal cases, so that was a new experience for me. And I enjoyed the ability to interact with the lawyers and the parties, and it was nice to feel like I was on the front lines for our judicial system.
Q. Now you’re a U.S. Court of Appeals judge. How does this current experience compare to your prior judgeships?
A. Well, I feel really lucky to have had all of them. And I’ve learned different things from each of them. And I’ve enjoyed all of them. But I think this one is the best match for what I love the most about being a lawyer, and that is the research and writing part. And I miss things about being on the district court. I miss seeing people on a regular basis, although I’m lucky because I get to spend a lot of time with my law clerks—I don’t know how lucky they feel about that. It’s a different kind of position in that I’m focusing my time mostly on research and writing, and that is my favorite part of the job. I love it—I think it’s a great job, and I feel very, very fortunate to have the opportunity to do it.
Q. As an appellate judge, you spend a lot of time reading and writing. What makes for effective legal writing?
A. I think the most effective legal writing is legal writing that is able to clearly and simply explain the position and be persuasive in doing so.
Q. How about oral advocacy? In the appellate court, oral argument is sometimes granted for cases. What is the utility of oral argument? And what do you think is most effective in oral argument?
A. The best oral advocates are the ones who are extremely well-prepared and are fluent in their case. They know everything there is to know about the case. They know the record inside-out, and they know all of the case law. And they are able to have a conversation with the judges about their case. The best oral advocates are the ones who embrace the challenging questions and explain why the judge’s concern isn’t really a defining concern or doesn’t really matter to the end result, rather than the attorneys who just try to survive through the oral argument and try to avoid the more challenging questions. The best oral advocates are the ones who understand that the hard questions may be the last opportunity that they have to convince the court that their position is the correct one.
Q. How do you view your role as a judge within the context of society as a whole, as opposed to just within the legal profession?
A. As I’ve said, I think the rule of law is critical to the continued viability of our democracy. Without the rule of law, no democracy can survive. I know technically we’re a republic, but I think you get what I’m saying. In order for the rule of law to be respected, people need to have an understanding of what it is that the judges are doing. Judicial orders need to be transparent, and they need to be sincere and genuine. And so I think it’s important to write simply for those members of the public who are lay people who are interested in what we’re doing and how we arrive at our decisions, so that they can understand what we’re doing. I understand that most people probably don’t run out to read the latest opinion that comes out of the court, but for those who are interested in it, I think it’s really important that they’re able to understand what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it and that it is all grounded in the rule of law.
Q. What, in your view, is the role of concurring opinions or dissenting opinions?
A. Sometimes you can’t come to a compromise where everybody is going to feel like they can sign off on something. And when that’s the case, sometimes you just feel like you have to dissent or you have to concur, because even though you agree with the outcome, we’re not quite on board with how we got there. I think the importance of it is that the law is continually developing, and what is a dissent one day might become the majority opinion in the future. Or at least, if it doesn’t, it might help with the development of the law, and it also hopefully forces the majority opinion to address any holes that the dissent or the concurrence might be able to point out in the majority opinion. So, for example, if I’m writing the majority opinion, and somebody else is dissenting, it’s helpful to me to see where they think the weaknesses are in the majority 4 opinion. And I will reconsider my views on it, and if I continue to decide that my position is correct, I will then shore up my opinion to try to respond to the points that the dissent or the concurrence would bring out. Hopefully the overall result is a better opinion all the way around and decisions that are better thought-out.
Q. You’re known for being very dedicated to your job and to your family. How do you maintain that balance?
A. Well, I’m very fortunate. My husband is extremely supportive. And now that both of my kids are off at college, I have even more time that I can devote to work. But your kids go through life once, they’re only kids once, and you want to be there for all of the important things, and so you try to do that, but you don’t want work to suffer, especially when you have the privilege of working as a judge, and there’s a lot depending on it. So you work extra hours and you are a little more flexible in how you get the time in. You’re working the same amount, but you’re just doing it in a more creative way.
Q. What advice would you give to newer lawyers?
A. Your reputation is really important, and it starts when you’re in law school. It’s important to think hard about decisions that you make and the way that you want to advocate for something and the things that you want to do in your professional career. It’s important to do those things because it’s important to be professional and a good person. But it’s also important, if that’s not enough for someone, to do those things because your reputation follows you for the remainder of your career.
Q. What advice would you give to more experienced attorneys?
A. I love the law, and I hope that people who are practicing law love the law. If you’re in an area that you don’t enjoy quite as much, and it’s easy for me to say, I guess, but it might be a little more challenging to do in practice, to the extent that you might have the ability to try a new area, I would encourage people to do that. And I would encourage people to try new things, to try new skills, if you haven’t tried a case before and the opportunity arises, to be a second chair or something of that nature, then go ahead and try that, because you might really enjoy it. So when opportunities present themselves, take advantage of them.
Q. And what advice would you give to new judges?
A. We are very lucky to have the position. Always remember every day how fortunate we are to have the position, how much trust is placed in us, and how important it is to be true to the rule of law every day.