What I’ve Learned: Fred Lauten ’75 ’76MBA

A proponent of social media in the judicial system, this chief justice also embraces the value of a liberal arts education.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. YouTube. Vimeo. iTunes. You name it, Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court is on it.

Three years ago, when Fred Lauten ’75, ’76MBA became chief justice, he wasn’t sold on the idea of social media. Then he attended a conference that changed his mind about the role of technology, that it can be a force for good, a way to humanize the judicial system.

In August 2016, the Ninth Circuit, which serves Orange and Osceola counties, became the state’s first court to have a podcast. Thirty-plus episodes later, “Open Ninth: Conversations Beyond the Courtroom” is still going strong, with Lauten and his interview subjects addressing everything from the opioid epidemic to how judges are portrayed in film.

For his professional achievements and contributions to society, Lauten won a 2017 Rollins Alumni Achievement Award. During his lunch hour on a recent Friday, the chief justice took time to reflect on what he has learned along the way, starting with his days as a history major and president of the student body.

I fell in love with Rollins quickly, particularly the small class sizes and the fact you could interact with the professors directly. I took advantage of the opportunity to try out a lot of things, including theater, which was very valuable when I was a trial lawyer.

When I got to Rollins, I didn’t appreciate what a liberal arts education meant. But by the time I left, I was a fan. Rollins trained me in a variety of areas and disciplines and encouraged intellectual curiosity. That helped me when I became a judge because you’re faced with so many different kinds of cases. I was the beneficiary of a broad opportunity to study history, philosophy, theater, English, and business.

Learning is a lifetime pursuit. So I value education in and of itself, but I’m committed to judicial education because this job involves so many areas. One day you might be handling a capital murder case, and the next it’s a property dispute. Judges, in many ways, are the last generalists left in the law.

For a long time, the judicial system was a little reticent to engage with social media, because we have to guard against litigants and members of the public trying to influence us. But the Ninth Circuit has really embraced it now. We want to demystify the court system by providing information and being an effective community partner.

Almost all the feedback has been positive on our “Open Ninth” podcast. We’ve covered so many different topics, even interviewing a justice who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s just a platform to get out information in a variety of different areas about the court system.

I love coming to work. I love this job. It has its challenges, but I work with such a talented group of judges and staff who’ve distinguished themselves in so many ways in presiding over cases and providing justice to citizens. They’re fascinating people to work with, and that gives me energy and inspiration.

I’ve been doing this for 24 years, and I’m still an optimist. A lot of people who end up in the court system are good people dealing with very difficult situations, but they’re not inherently evil. Every now and then I’ve felt like I’ve been around people who are intrinsically evil. It’s very rare but also very frightening—sociopaths who would harm people without blinking an eye. When you encounter them, the room gets a little colder.

Fighting the opioid epidemic is a complex problem. Sometimes you have people in front of you who have chosen a lifestyle of selling drugs, and the next person in front of you is someone who has been involved in a car accident and became addicted to painkillers.

The scary thing is that we have more deaths from opioids than auto accidents and murder. The state and federal government have recently recognized it as a health crisis. The courts see the effects of that. The police are on the front lines the most, but we’re step two in the process.

Being impartial is an area where judges need constant training. Every year at conferences and locally, we have education sessions about skill sets where we can identify our biases and address them. We’re human beings after all, and everyone has certain biases, but we’ve got to work to manage them and set them aside to be fair to both parties.

We are under-represented on the bench with minority judges, both African American and Latino. There are legitimate questions about whether law enforcement and the judicial system treat citizens equally. Having diversity in the system and on the bench helps deliver a positive message and achieve results.

There’s a tendency to take your cases home and agonize over them. But over time, that can really beat you down. Just make a decision and move on. My son has a phrase for this in basketball: next play. Do your best, prepare your best, and move on.