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The Last Word

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  • | 6:00 p.m. March 4, 2005
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The Last Word

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

It took Bernie McCabe almost 28 years, but the Pinellas-Pasco state attorney finally gave retired Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer her comeuppance. At least that's what he thinks. Everyone knows Sue Schaeffer always gets the last word. It's her nature.

McCabe took particular delight in chiding the retired judge during a tribute in her honor Feb. 25 at St. Petersburg's Mirror Lake Lyceum. Over more than three decades, the two grew professionally. While McCabe prosecuted criminal defendants, Schaeffer defended them - first, as a public defender and then for a while as a criminal defense lawyer. This adversarial friendship continued throughout her rise to become a three-term chief judge in the 6th Circuit, and his rise to chief prosecutor.

This evening, however, McCabe took the upper hand as master of ceremonies for a panel of Schaeffer friends and colleagues who recalled golden days, wished her well in retirement and offered encouragement in her fight against lung cancer.

It was no ordinary tribute. Chief Justice Barbara Pariente of the Florida Supreme Court joined a panel of speakers that included chief judges David Demers of the 6th Circuit and Belvin Perry Jr. of the 9th Circuit, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Lauren Laughlin and trial attorneys Denis deVlaming and Patrick Doherty.

The event attracted some of the Tampa Bay area's finest legal minds. U.S. district judges Elizabeth Kovachevich, Susan Bucklew and William J. Castagna joined around 350 guests who sat for several hours just to hear Schaeffer speak. Judge Tom Stringer of the 2nd District Court of Appeal attended along with Hillsborough Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr., trial lawyer Barry Cohen and Jimmy Russell, the former Pinellas state attorney.

What they got was vintage Schaeffer: honest, brash and unrepentant. They also heard only part of the story.

Born June 29, 1942, Schaeffer spent her early years with grandparents. Her father abandoned the family. Tootie, as they called Schaeffer's mother, suffered from tuberculosis and spent the first six years of her daughter's life in an Ohio sanitarium. Despite being diagnosed as a terminal case, her mother recovered and lived to age 68.

The experience with her mother had a profound impact on Schaeffer. This is where the early inklings of Schaeffer's legendary tenacity emerged.

"She told me she fought so hard (to survive) to take care of me," Schaeffer says in an interview. "She was very tenacious. She taught me to never give up. We just planted our feet and knew we were going to do well."

Schaeffer built on that foundation and graduated from St. Petersburg's Northeast High School, St. Petersburg Junior College and Florida State University. A couple years of work as an Internal Revenue Service agent convinced her she needed a law degree.

Not only did Schaeffer earn a law degree in 1971 from the Stetson University College of Law but she also graduated first in her class. Then she spent two years as a professor at the Gulfport campus, earning a reputation for toughness.

The foundation she and her mother built also served Schaeffer well as she broke old barriers as a criminal defense lawyer. She was a rarity then: one of the few female trial lawyers in a profession dominated by males rooted in Pinellas' old Southern culture. Discrimination was rife. Prosecutors often demeaned her in open court, with little rebuke from the judges.

"I was treated like a dog," Schaeffer told the audience.

To her adversaries' chagrin, Schaeffer excelled as a criminal trial lawyer. That's something she attributes to nothing less than hard work. She became a trailblazer.

Early on in her law school career, Schaeffer met Bob Jagger, then the Pinellas public defender, during a recruiting clinic at Stetson.

Jagger's interview with her was his first with a woman attending law school. "That broke the ice," Jagger says.

In the meantime, Jagger hired Catherine Harlan, who would become Pinellas' first female county judge and later a circuit judge, as chief deputy of the public defender's Clearwater office. The decision later to hire Schaeffer as chief deputy of the St. Petersburg office quickly challenged the old ways of doing things in the Pinellas trial courts.

"Yes, she was a pioneer in that regard," Jagger says about his former protege. "(Women) weren't really accepted in the courtroom, especially in criminal law."

Several years into her job as a chief deputy, Schaeffer received positive publicity from the St. Petersburg Times about her trial work on behalf of murder defendant Raymond Robert Clark. This is the trial that McCabe has stewed over for almost 28 years.

McCabe successfully prosecuted Clark. While the newspaper printed a story about the conviction, it also published a separate sidebar complete with Schaeffer's photograph about her trial work. It was titled, "A performance that even Perry Mason would have envied."

At Friday's roast, McCabe jokingly lamented how he had won the case but Schaeffer got all the publicity. To illustrate his plight, he distributed to each guest a photocopy of the sidebar article with a 7-inch by 6-inch photo of Schaeffer and the "Perry Mason" headline.

"What ticks me off, I won the case, and she got all the kudos," he told the audience.

Schaeffer only smiled as McCabe recounted the tale and ignored it completely as she told the audience about other important occurrences in her career. It appears Schaeffer went soft on McCabe. During an interview, she showed a tear sheet of the article to GCBR. It was a one-column sidebar and photograph.

It turns out Schaeffer and her co-counsel, Marty Murry, faced overwhelming evidence in defense of Clark. Everyone, she says, expected the jury to convict him in a matter of minutes. It took the jury 12 hours, however. The Times' article explains what happened:

"Not a soul in the courtroom Saturday seemed to doubt that Susan Schaeffer, an assistant public defender who wasn't charging Raymond Clark a penny, had given a performance that even Perry Mason himself would have envied," the article states. "Even friends of the man Clark was accused of murdering marveled at her skill."

Eventually, Schaeffer says, trial lawyers and prosecutors slowly accepted her into their exclusive fraternity. She attributes such acceptance to her love of the law and willingness to work long, hard hours. It didn't hurt, she adds, that she's something of a jokester.

"I became accepted as one of the guys," she says. "This made it easier for other women so long as they were good."

In 1982, Schaeffer's work ethic paid off. Gov. Bob Graham appointed her as a circuit judge. She devoted herself to the job.

Over the years, Schaeffer became an expert in the death penalty. She composed a manual titled, "Conducting the Penalty Phase of a Capital Case." For years, she taught death penalty sentencing at the Florida College of Advanced Judicial Studies and the National Judicial College in Reno, Nev. Instructors there still use the manual.

In a letter McCabe read at the roast, 2nd DCA Chief Judge Chris Altenbernd talked about the strength of Schaeffer's death penalty rulings. Rarely did the appellate court reverse her decisions. On one occasion, the state Supreme Court overruled the 2nd DCA opinion "and said Susan was right."

Schaeffer's legal acumen, judicial intellect, basic toughness and wit continued to win her friends. That foundation earned her a critical role in 1998 when Florida voters enacted Revision 7 to Article V of the state Constitution. This mandate required the state to take responsibility for funding the state courts instead of local government.

Former Chief Justice Major Harding appointed her to chair the state courts steering committee on Revision 7. His successor, Chief Justice Charlie Wells, then appointed her chair of the state Trial Courts Budget Commission.

Setting aside all jokes, Pariente lauded Schaeffer's leadership during difficult budget negotiations with representatives of the state House and Senate.

To show their appreciation, members of the state Supreme Court voted Schaeffer an honorary justice - a rare act - and named her as lifelong chair emeritus of the courts' budget commission, Pariente told the audience. That honor came as the Stetson law school announced Schaeffer's induction into its Hall of Fame.

Pariente also joked that there are days when she wishes Schaeffer had received her seat on the Florida Supreme Court in 1997. Both were nominees.

Just prior to the evening program, Schaeffer mixed with guests and shared memories.

Out of concern for her, one or another would occasionally grab a chair so she could sit. The ravages of lung cancer have weakened her body. They hugged and kissed and joked about her baldness, a side effect of chemotherapy.

Although in remission, Schaeffer acknowledges she suffers from the more virulent small-cell lung cancer. As a precaution she has undergone 18 treatments of brain radiation.

"If it comes backs, hopefully it won't come back to my brain," she told the audience.

As the evening came to a close, Schaeffer spoke about things most important to her. At the top of her list, she cited the contributions and friendship of Sue Rudd, who served as her judicial assistant for nearly 23 years.

"Sue, I would have none of this tribute tonight without you being my other half in office, and it was strictly that," Schaeffer says. "The circuit judge's office is a two-person office. I want to thank you for all the memories, and being absolutely the best judicial assistant."

Then she thanked the audience.

"I'm overwhelmed by the support and love I feel in this room tonight," she says. "This will be a tribute I shall treasure forever.

"By your presence here tonight, I know when the sun sets on my life that I will have made a difference at least in the legal profession," she adds. "That is very gratifying. My wish for each of you is a life filled with love, joy, happiness, serenity and the good health to enjoy it. My prayer for each of you is for God to bless you and keep you safe in the hollow of his hand until we meet again, which I hope will be soon."

Guests applauded, wiping away tears.

"I don't think I was saying goodbye," she says. "I was saying: If something happened, and we didn't get a chance to talk again, then I didn't want them to grieve for me. I wanted to let them know I was OK."

She has no regrets. "If my time is up, I will not be left feeling I left anything undone."


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