Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge William Thomas put judicial ethics in a personal context for Ransom Everglades upper school students during an assembly March 1 at the Lewis Family Auditorium. Judge Thomas, the third speaker in Ransom Everglades’ Holzman Center of Applied Ethics Distinguished Speaker Series, described his path to the circuit court bench while addressing how he deals with personal biases, campaign contributions and judicial discretion.
Thomas told his audience that making decisions based on facts and the law was not a passive process. He said it was imperative to dig deep to understand all relevant facts, and also to understand the constraints and limitations of the laws being applied.
“I didn’t become a judge so I could impose my will or my social views on those that come before me,” he said. “… My job is to call balls and strikes, but when given discretion, I welcome it. If I’m given discretion, I exercise it.”
Added the judge, later, when asked about textualization and legal interpretation: “Judges need to arrive at a decision that make sense, that doesn’t lead to an absurd result.”
Associate Head of School John A. King, Jr., the director of the Holzman Center of Applied Ethics, introduced Thomas. RE’s Director of Inclusion and Community Engagement Wendell Graham ’74 and local trial attorney John O’Sullivan, a supporter of the ethics center, queried Thomas before turning the microphone over to students. The ethics speaker series, which began last fall, is designed to further the center's goal of empowering students to engage in ethical decision-making and to act with honor, excellence and integrity at RE and beyond.
One of 10 children of a single mother, Thomas recalled a childhood in the projects of Southwestern Pennsylvania, where he witnessed an excess of both crime and injustice. It was the injustice that motivated him to a career in the law; he hoped he could make a difference. “I wanted to change this world,” he said. “I wanted to say my life meant something.”
He earned bachelor's degree from Washington and Jefferson University and law degree from Temple University, then worked for a decade as a public defender before deciding to run for a circuit court judgeship. Spurring him to that career change was the fact that there were few Black judges in Miami-Dade County.
“Justice means nothing if … people do not perceive the system to be fair,” he said. “Three’s an aspect of fairness that deals with perception … Judges are important for what they symbolize.”
Thomas, who has been on the state bench 18 years and has been nominated for a federal judgeship, discussed how he works to check his personal biases, go the extra mile to understand the facts in front of him, and manage the challenges of an election system that allows lawyers who appear in front of judges to donate to their reelection campaigns.
When asked how to ensure that judges acted with integrity, he answered quickly, telling students to get out and vote when they turn 18.
“I can’t ensure that, but you can,” he told a student. “Citizenship is a community activity … You hold judges accountable for what it is that they do.”
Steve Holzman, whose seed donation got the ethics center off the ground last November, was also in attendance.