Courthouse Surprise

Ian Richards is one of the most unlikely people ever to be elected judge in the history of Broward County. He knows that his upset victory over incumbent County Court Judge Catalina Avalos has deeply upset the old courthouse crowd.

And he says he wants to focus on healing. If that's not possible, he offers a bit of advice.

"Get over it," he says in his lilting English accent, quickly adding, "Oh, don't write that. It will only make it worse."

It's understandable that there's a lot of consternation over Richards' victory. For one, it was an absolute shocker. All indicators suggested that he never should have prevailed in the August 26 election over incumbent Catalina Avalos. The man had almost everything going against him.

At 33 years old, Richards is young and inexperienced. The guy still owes $20,000 in student loans.

In courthouse circles, he was a complete unknown. He didn't even work in Broward County; his law office was in Miami-Dade. He'd handled a grand total of 14 Broward cases, four of them traffic tickets, none of them high-profile.

On top of that, Richards is black, a characteristic that statistically made his prospects a very long shot. To understand the odds against him, consider that only three of the county's roughly 90 judges are black, and all three were initially appointed rather than elected.

Richards, in fact, is about as diverse — to use a modern catchword — as a person can be. He was born of Jamaican parents in England, has a Chinese wife, and calls soccer "football."

Needless to say, he wasn't exactly the toast of the power crowd in Broward County, which strongly favored his seemingly formidable opponent.

Avalos, appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, had the support of all the power players, from her former boss, State Attorney Michael Satz, to a slew of lawyers (including honchos like Bill Scherer and David Bogenschutz) to unions and the Fraternal Order of Police. Her name was on all the palm cards at the big condo developments.

Then there was the money. Avalos spent more than $143,000 compared to Richards' $24,000 — most of that meager campaign fund supplied by Richards himself (he raised only about $6,000).

Despite all of these things, Richards won the head-to-head election in a low-turnout nailbiter, with his 47,547 votes edging out Avalos' 46,087.

The irony of ironies is that Richards likely would never have won if it had not been for prejudice — good old Broward County prejudice. Not against blacks but Hispanics. Avalos, after all, was one of three Hispanic incumbent judges who were voted out of office by challengers with Anglo or Jewish names (Feld, Bober, etc.).

And Ian Richards? Why, it sounds like a proper gentleman from the United Kingdom. A whiter-sounding name would be hard to find. Richards may have been born in the United Kingdom, but you can bet that a lot of the people who voted for him in Sunrise, Plantation, and Parkland (which he surprisingly won) had no idea he is black.

Those who worked in the Avalos camp say they believe the name game was a big factor in the outcome.

"Was it Hispanic backlash? I don't know, but I don't think they voted for him because they knew him or because he's uniquely qualified," says Rae Chorowski, a divorce attorney and past president of the Broward Hispanic Bar Association, who served as treasurer for Avalos' campaign. "There is a lot of speculation, but I am as mystified as anyone."

Veteran attorney Steve Melnick, who also worked on Avalos' campaign, is more direct.

"It's a shocker how the public voted," he says. "I don't want to say it was anti-Hispanic... but all they did was vote by the name."

Richards predictably balks at the notion. He says he spent most of his time campaigning in the Caribbean-American and African-American community. Avalos, meanwhile, went to all the political clubs and forums on the regular circuit. The two candidates rarely crossed paths.

The only controversy during the race came when Avalos' campaign sent out a mailer that featured a copy of her Sun-Sentinel endorsement. That's normal enough, but the mailer included a copy of the Sentinel's photo of Richards that shaded his face darker. Critics say it was a ploy to alert voters to Richards' race.

Richards says the only thing that bothered him about the ad, though, was the fact that the Sentinel failed to include his two-year stint as an assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade as part of his experience.

"This idea about the name thing I think is ridiculous," says a circumspect Richards. "If this was all about ethnicity, then I submit to you that I should have won by a whole lot more. The truth is that in my community, I got a whole lot of support; in her community, she didn't do as well as she may have liked."

I'm sure Richards worked hard, but the truth is that he got lucky.

The truth is that he won because of a name. The truth is that he probably should have never been elected a county judge. And the truth is that he might just be one of the best things to arrive at the courthouse in recent memory.

His election dealt another powerful blow to the power crowd that attempts to lord it over the courthouse. And it ejected Avalos, an acolyte of State Attorney Satz, apparently a perfectly nice woman but one who walked in lockstep with that old, corrupt crowd.

But who is this Richards fellow? Well, he filled in some biographical details for me. His father, an auto mechanic, and mother, a registered nurse, were born in Jamaica. They traveled to work in Derbyshire, England, where Richards was born in 1975.

After stints in Jamaica and New York, the family settled in South Florida, specifically on the hard streets of Liberty City. It wasn't easy.

"I got into too many fights, got into too much trouble, and got robbed too many times," he says.

He was robbed four times by the time he was in the second grade, he says. At the same time, his parents' marriage was falling apart. He says that before his parents divorced, "significant" domestic violence erupted in the house, which he witnessed.

After that, he lived primarily with his mother in Miami Gardens but visited regularly with his father, who moved to Fort Lauderdale. He graduated from Miami Norland Senior High School with grades good enough to get him a partial scholarship to attend Florida International University.

After graduating with a degree in accounting and a focus on computer science, he interned at a few companies, including Barnett Bank and American Express. "I was going to be the greatest programmer who ever lived," he says, "even though I couldn't stand sitting at the computer for that long."

Then he was offered a scholarship to attend law school at the University of Miami. He says he decided to take it only after his mother told him it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity he had to take.

While at UM, he attended a campus memorial on the day after the attacks of September 11, 2001. There he met a Chinese student named Xiaoling Yu. They married and now have a 4-year-old daughter. "We believe we are soul mates," Richards says. "If you were on a deserted island, who would you want to be with? I would want to be with her."

After passing the bar, Richards got an internship at the Broward County Public Defenders Office before becoming an assistant state attorney in Kathy Rundle's office. He worked in a unit in which he'd had some personal experience many years back: domestic violence.

Two years later, he started a law practice of his own. "I started out doing door law," says Richards, who is also president of his homeowners' association in Miramar. "That means whatever comes through the door, I did... But I now do mostly criminal, civil, and immigration law."

He wouldn't discuss his reasons for running for judge, but he acknowledges that it was a harrowing experience. Sinking more than $20,000 into his campaign, for instance, indicated just how much faith he had in winning.

"What's amazing isn't that I put the money out there; what's amazing is that my wife swallowed hard and let me put it out there," he says. "I had a theory on how to win and followed it."

It's a powerful statement but one of only a few he wanted to make before he ascends to his new position.

"If I don't do my talking by doing good work on the stand, then all I've done so far is for naught," he says. "I want to say what I have to say on the bench. I just want to be fair and unbiased, and I want people, when they walk into my courtroom, to get the idea that this guy knows what he's doing."

I brought up some well-known courthouse names — former chief criminal judge Ana Gardiner and Bill Scherer among them — and he said he's never heard of any of them.

"Enough of this politics stuff," he says. "Politics should stay outside of the courtroom. I don't know the power players, and I don't care to know them, because they think they have a lot more power than they do."

If his own rise to the bench is any indication, he's dead right.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman