September 24, 2021
Third DCA Judge Ivan Fernandez is Not Afraid of Reinventing Himself
By Michael Mora

The clock is counting down to the date when Third District Court of Appeal Judge Ivan F. Fernandez will lead the Florida appellate court. And a constant theme throughout his career has been his ability to reinvent himself to transition into new roles.

Fernandez is someone whom Third DCA Judge Thomas Logue has called “the most dangerous man I have ever eaten lunch with.”

While Fernandez laughed over his colleague’s characterization, over half of his 40 years of public service involved putting his life in some sort of danger. Examples include the hundreds of SWAT operations in which Fernandez and his team would enter fortified houses, knowing full well the people inside had firearms at the ready.

“You have a situation where you have a team that has to do a number of things,” Fernandez said. “No. 1, secure the location, so the members of the team are not shot or hurt. When we knew where the bathrooms were, we would break through those windows and make sure nobody was flushing the drugs down the toilet.”

Even though Florida chief judges do not have to dodge bullets in their day-to-day roles in administering justice, the ability to think under pressure and build comradery among those they manage in the judiciary is vital to the efficient operation of the court.

“The chief judge of a court is not someone who goes around telling other judges what to do,” Fernandez said. “As I see it, just the way the judges serve the public, the chief judge serves the judges of the court.”

Now, Fernandez is planning for when he assumes the role of the Third DCA chief judge July 1. But his story does not start there. It dates back to when he was a child and had aspirations to become a lawyer.

After graduating high school, Fernandez postponed those plans to become an attorney as he soon felt lost after enrolling in Miami Dade College. His life changed when the 18-year-old walked by a recruitment office and enlisted in the military.

While serving in the U.S. Army, Fernandez was assigned to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe as a military policeman in Belgium. Soon after, Fernandez gave college another shot.

“There was a certain amount of discipline that was instilled in me when I was in the U.S. Army,” Fernandez said. “I was absolutely more productive. It drew me along to a point where I wanted to improve on a daily basis. For the next 20 years, it was all about getting better.”

One memorable case Fernandez recalled involved vandalism that occurred overnight at one of the hangers at the airbase for helicopters. The perpetrators damaged covers and hubcaps. Fernandez collected evidence that pointed to two police officers working the night shift. It was something he never imagined a colleague would do.

After four years, Fernandez knew he wanted to continue to serve the public, but in a different capacity. He applied to both the Florida Highway Patrol and the City of Miami Police Department and chose the latter. Over the next 17 years, Fernandez progressed from an officer to a commander.

During the early 1980s, Fernandez said the SWAT team was serving 10 to 15 search warrants a day.

“They were all dangerous and they all involved firearms,” Fernandez said. “But that’s what you do. You signed up for the job.”

However, Fernandez knew he wanted to pursue a career that was his dream growing up. While taking a three-month administrative officers course in 1988, he received a letter from the University of Miami, indicating it had accepted him into its law school.

And Fernandez loved his immersion into the law, which exposed him to a type of thinking that was different from law enforcement. Still, Fernandez chose the university because of its nighttime program. Yet, the work sometimes conflicted with his studies.

“I had to go to law school in uniform at night because we had a couple of riots,” Fernandez said. “I had to leave class twice and there were other times when I was simply unable to go at all. Oftentimes, it was a matter of leaving work and going straight to school. You do what you have to do if you want to become a lawyer. You go to school and take care of it.”

After graduating from the University of Miami School of Law, Fernandez reinvented himself as an attorney practicing civil and real estate law, but his urge to serve the public led him to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

While Fernandez was working at the state attorney’s office, one of his colleagues recommended he run for a state judgeship. Instead of challenging an incumbent judge, Fernandez ran for the role once an open seat became available, but it also required a leap of faith because he had to leave the state attorney’s office. However, that did not deter Fernandez.

“If you’re going to do it, you have to expect to win,” Fernandez said. “You have to go in with a mindset that you’re going to do everything necessary — within ethical bounds — to win the election. From 6:30 a.m. to midnight, I was out on the road going from place to place, running my campaign.”

On election night, Fernandez gathered with a group of his friends at his house to watch the returns. The voter tally looked promising, as Fernandez had a 20,000 vote lead over his opponent. The only problem was, the results of the election were delayed by nearly a week.

“That one week, between election night and when the results were finally certified, it felt like 10 years in that week,” Fernandez recalled. “But it worked out.”

Fernandez found the work challenging as he worked at the Miami-Dade Circuit Court in the dependency, criminal, general jurisdiction and family divisions. But Fernandez wanted a change. Fernandez said while he was in the Army, his goal for the next two decades was to continue improving himself and that is why he wanted to take the step to serve on the Third DCA.

In 2011, then Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed Fernandez after his fourth attempt applying to the position. Fernandez remembers talking with Scott about how they joined the military in October of 1971 and were earning around $135 a month. As Fernandez advanced in the state appellate court role, up-and-coming judges admired his wealth of knowledge.

“Sometimes you are having a conversation with him and you find out something incredible about his life that you never knew because he does not talk about himself,” Third DCA Judge Monica Gordo said. “I call him the ‘Renaissance Man.’ He’s just a surprising person because he is always reinventing himself and relearning.”

And when Fernandez assumes his new role, the first item on his agenda will be to get the Third DCA back to normal operations. That includes streamlining oral arguments and continue to utilize new technologies, such as Zoom. Fernandez plans to serve about two more years following the end of his term as chief judge, as he targets 2024 as the year in which he will retire.

Gordo said that what is just as fascinating as Fernandez’s 40 years of public service, including the years he put his life on the line, is the life he has made with his wife, Tricia, the Miami Dade County Public Schools assistant superintendent.

“She loves kids, schools, and trying to make everything better during COVID-19,” Gordo said. “You see them in their world together with their four kids. It is fascinating to see such dedicated public servants making a life together.”