In October 1970, Gerald B. Tjoflat, Peter T. Fay, and James Lawrence King huddled together in a Senate hearing room, testifying about their credentials to serve as U.S. District Court judges in Florida. Within a few hours, all received unanimous Senate confirmation—typical of a gentler era in Washington.
What happened next was less predictable. Tjoflat and Fay were each elevated to the Court of Appeals. King received the Judiciary’s prestigious Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award, and even had a federal courthouse named after him.
Mostly, though, they did what they loved best—serving as United States judges—and they stayed in close contact as they did so. This month, all three are completing 50 years on the federal bench. As they have for each of the past 50 years, they are celebrating their shared anniversary, and a judicial career none of them expected to last so long.
“I never expected to be a judge at all,” Fay said. “I was making too much money as a lawyer.”
The judges remain connected by intense bonds of personal affection and professional admiration. Tjoflat and Fay work as fellow judges on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Fay and King are based in the same Miami courthouse. Tjoflat is several hundred miles up the coast in Jacksonville. As a district judge in the Southern District of Florida whose cases are appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, King jokes that Tjoflat and Fay “have graded my papers for years.”
The three enjoyed successful careers as litigators, and Tjoflat and King served as state judges before the opportunity arose to join the federal bench. In 1970, they and Paul Roney of St. Petersburg, Florida, were nominated by President Richard Nixon to newly authorized judgeships. Roney served nearly 36 years as a federal appellate judge before his death in September 2006.
The four were confirmed Oct. 13, 1970, and Fay and King took their oaths together on Oct. 30, in what Fay refers to as a “double-ring ceremony.”
Tjoflat, Fay, and King all have had notable distinctions in their careers.
Early in his tenure as a district judge in the Middle District of Florida, Tjoflat was given six weeks to resolve a massive desegregation-school busing case in the Jacksonville area. After weeks of 10-hour days hearing from all stakeholders, Tjoflat issued a judgment that integrated all but two of the system’s 137 public schools. Despite numerous threats during proceedings, the judgment was accepted with a minimum of public protest.
While chairing the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Administration of the Probation System, Tjoflat helped lead efforts that resulted in bail reform and sentencing reform legislation in the 1980s.
A particular pleasure of Tjoflat’s, as an appellate judge, is when he sits on the same three-judge panel as Fay. “He’s got great common sense,” Tjoflat said of his colleague. “When we get in conference after hearing four or five cases, we are done in 45 minutes. We get right to the heart of a case.”
King served in Miami at a time when the Southern District of Florida was swamped with organized crime trials. At one time, he and two other judges simultaneously presided over trials lasting five months or longer, and judges in the district averaged more than 50 trials a year. As chief judge, he took 21 trips to Washington, D.C., advocating tirelessly for new courthouses and judgeships.
In 1996, one of two new federal courthouses built in Miami was dedicated in King’s name. “I think they just wanted to get rid of me,” King said jokingly about the honor, which was approved by Congress.
Fay also served several years in the Southern District of Florida before being appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1976. “This is the best job in the world,” Fay said. “You work with marvelous people and you get to hear fascinating cases.”
In interviews, the judges fairly gush with admiration for one another.
Tjoflat “is extremely intelligent and has barrels of energy. He never wears down,” Fay said. King “is a workhorse, almost a glutton for punishment,” Tjoflat said. Fay and Tjoflat “write magnificent, scholarly opinions,” said King. King and Tjoflat both call Fay a “perfect gentleman.”
When they celebrate their anniversaries each year, the judges describe their annual October calls as friendly and even teasing, but rarely marked by deep sentimentality. This year, however, Fay said he and Tjoflat took note of their shared anniversary. “That’s what we talked about, serving 50 years,” he said.
Although all are in their 90s, the judges have no intention of retiring. “If I had to play golf every day, I’d shoot myself,” Fay said.
Tjoflat declined to take senior status until 2019, when he was 89. His 44 years as a full-time, active judge is a record for court of appeals judges. “I’ve enjoyed doing everything I’m doing. I’ve seen a lot of culture change, but what we do now is the same as five decades ago. Due process is still at the heart of it.”
King said he especially values the warm relationships he has formed with judges in his court and around the country. But the affection he feels for Tjoflat and Fay is in a special category.
“Judge Tjoflat and I are very close, but with Pete [Fay], it’s very personal. I love the guy, and I love his family,” King said.
Still, in the tweaking that comes as second nature after a half-century, King cautioned that the judges’ shared history has its limits. After President Gerald Ford elevated Tjoflat to the Court of Appeals in 1975, King fired off a telegram.
“I was there when you were sworn in as a state judge, I was there when you were sworn in at U.S. district court, and I’ll be there when you are sworn into the circuit court,” King wrote to Tjoflat. “After that, you’re on your own!”
Related Topics: Judges & Judgeships