Today he is the only Hispanic judge in Broward County, but growing up, Robert Diaz, adjunct professor in the Shepard Broad Law Center, never thought he would become a lawyer.
The son of Cuban parents, Diaz was born and raised in Miami and attended Hialeah High School.
“My parents were not ones to stay on me about school,” Diaz said. “I guess they kind of let me do it on my own and maybe that’s why it took me nine years to get out of college. I couldn’t decide on what I wanted to do,”
After high school, Diaz enrolled in Miami Dade Community College, now called Miami Dade College. Because of the many career options, he kept changing his major.
“I wanted to become a computer programmer, then I wanted to be an accountant,” said Diaz. “I changed and wanted to be a physical education major, but then I was placed on academic probation because my grades were not good. That was like an epiphany and I decided I needed to start applying myself.”
While he was in school, Diaz also worked for the city of Hialeah as a recreation leader, coaching kids at a park. Because he broke a minor rule, Diaz felt that he was unjustly fired from his job. He then got in contact with the lawyer from the union he was a part of, and after going through arbitration and winning, Diaz got his job back. It was then that he decided he wanted to become a lawyer.
“I liked what the lawyer had done and thought that I would like to represent people who get fired wrongfully,” said Diaz.
After transferring to Florida International University, Diaz graduated with a bachelor’s in liberal arts.
He soon applied to law school and was accepted into NSU’s Shepard Broad Law Center. In 1984, Diaz graduated with his Juris Doctorate degree and started working with the Broward Public Defender’s Office, a job that he felt really suited him.
Diaz said that when he was younger, his older brother would make him do everything he wanted until Diaz was old enough to stop him. Diaz said that he never liked telling his parents and never wanted to be the one to tell on somebody. But it was different in the public defender’s office.
“I felt like that state attorney was a person who was telling on somebody. I wanted to represent the people who were accused. I have always been for the underdog and I have always stuck up for the underdog. So I figured that being a public defender was a good profession for me,” said Diaz.
In 1992, after eight years of working in the public defender’s office, Diaz was told that there was a need for a Hispanic judge in Broward County because it had been 20 years since a Hispanic judge had been appointed. At first, Diaz was a bit hesitant about applying for the position.
“I thought that if I got the job, everyone would say that the only reason I got it was because I was Hispanic. Then I talked to a judge friend of mine who said, ‘Why do you care why you get the job? Just get the job. Do a good job and then nobody can say anything.’ I thought that was good advice and so I put my name in to be appointed,” said Diaz.
After sending three applications for the position, Diaz was appointed as a county court judge by then-Florida governor Lawton Chiles.
In 1989, Diaz was asked by one of his colleagues, adjunct professor Michael Rocque, to help teach an NSU course. More than two decades later, Diaz now teaches street law — a course that he took as a student and gave him his first teaching experience.
In this class, law students teach at middle schools and high schools in Broward County.
“I really like teaching because I get to, hopefully, let law students see a bit about what the real world is like and help them shape the way they behave as lawyers,” said Diaz.
Diaz also tries to bring his personal experiences as a lawyer and a judge into the classroom.
“Law students think of judges as just someone who is stodgy and stiff and that is not true. I tell my students that we are in the people business,” said Diaz. “People may not remember what you say but they will remember how you made them feel. As a judge, that is such an important thing because people are all waiting for you to make a decision on their life, and the way you say it or do it can have a big effect on them. So I always tell students to be aware of how they make people feel .”