It was a "really happy occasion," Miami Law Dean Patricia D. White said, as she and a distinguished gathering of lawyers, academics, friends and a half-dozen federal judges celebrated Judge Adalberto José Jordan's ascension to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Judge Jordan, who graduated summa cum laude from Miami Law in 1987, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in February by a 94–5 vote after being nominated to the appeals court last year by President Obama.
The celebratory reception in Judge Jordan's honor was given by the law school at the Lowe Art Museum on the University of Miami campus. Dean White described Judge Jordan as "one of our most extraordinary alumni," and said the law school is "incredibly fortunate" to have Judge Jordan not only as an alumnus but as a member of its adjunct faculty.
"America will be a better place because of it," she said, referring to Judge Jordan's elevation to the appeals bench. He is the first Cuban-born person to sit on that court, which has jurisdiction over Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Dean White mentioned Judge Jordan's history as a "walk-on" with the University of Miami baseball team when he was an undergraduate, and his description of having played mostly "right bench."
"We're confident that will no longer be his position," Dean White said, prompting laughter from the crowd. She said also that when he was still a student at UM, Judge Jordan's wife-to-be, Esther, graduated "quicker than he did," in three years. More laughter.
In the late 1980s, he became a clerk on the very same appeals court on which he now sits, and then for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court.
For the next two decades, back in Miami, Judge Jordan worked his way up from a starting associate at Steel, Hector and Davis, where he made partner in five years, to Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. He then held an appointment as Chief of the Appellate Division, until President Bill Clinton tapped him to sit on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. He somehow found time to be an adjunct professor at Miami Law – now going on 22 years – and to become a member of the school's visiting committee.
This summer, he will teach a two-credit course on the death penalty that will include an analysis of the moral propriety of capital punishment, the different types of capital sentencing systems, the impact of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments on capital punishment, a review of federal habeas corpus jurisprudence, and the steps by which a death sentence is appealed in state court and then reviewed in federal court.
"He's a great teacher," Dean White said. "He's beloved by his students. He's so anxious for them to succeed." So much so that Judge Jordan "hires our students as clerks, and as Legal Corps fellows," the dean went on. "He never says no when we ask him for something."
As an example of that willingness, Judge Jordan will be the commencement speaker for Miami Law at its graduation ceremonies on May 12.
At the reception, another Miami Law graduate, Federico A. Moreno, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, said that in addition to Judge Jordan's "brilliance, work ethic and knowledge of the law," he has qualities that most mortals lack.
"He's modest, and he has more than the average degree of compassion," said Judge Moreno, JD '78. Referring to an old TV commercial – "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen" – Judge Moreno said, "I can see that happening on the Court of Appeals."
Then, alluding to the somewhat protracted confirmation process that preceded Judge Jordan's elevation to the court, Judge Moreno said, "It's pretty difficult to say no to someone who says yes to everyone." That line set up Judge Moreno's conclusion: "Nice guys do not finish last," he said. "They finish first."
But before surrendering the microphone to his friend, Judge Moreno had a bit of advice for the new appeals judge: "When in doubt, affirm."
To a ringing round of applause, Judge Jordan stepped away from his wife and their daughter Diana (another daughter, Elizabeth, could not attend) and, in a quiet voice that betrayed a touch of emotion, thanked Miami Law and the university that surrounds it.
"I got a wonderful education at Miami, both as an undergrad and as a law student," he said. To illustrate his point, he told the crowd that when he was clerking on the U.S. Supreme Court and "the death penalty cases started rolling in," there were questions among some of the clerks as to what, precisely, habeas corpus meant.
"Four or five of us from lesser-known schools," he said, knew the subject well, while "those from the better-known schools had to come to us" for the answer.