September 12, 2007
“OK, stay on 107. Keep on going. Keep on truckin’ baby. …”
Only a few hours ago, Judge David Young was sitting behind the bench in his courtroom, presiding over the fate of nearly 20 defendants during a long string of probation hearings so varied and so often heart wrenching that it would test the wisdom of Solomon had he a job at the Miami-Dade County Circuit Court.
But at this moment the judge, who is accustomed to the convenience of power and can command the dynamics of a courtroom with a lift of an eyebrow, is attempting to take hold of a situation that seems to be uncoiling faster than he can wind it back in. It’s 1 p.m. and his parents are already 30 minutes late for a presentation he is to receive from Miami Mayor Carlos Alvarez.
They appear to be lost as they sample a variety of wrong turns on their way to the mayor’s satellite office on the west side of town.
“You should have listened to your son and met him at the courthouse,” Young (A&S ’81) teases his father over the cell phone. “I know the way you drive.”
You could forgive Young if he were to be a tad petulant about the developing wrinkle in a day that has already been overstuffed with emotions. There are few things more uncertain in an adult’s life than when his parents are behind the wheel, and while Young counts Alvarez as a friend, no one wants to keep the mayor of a major city on hold.
Yet, interestingly, Young remains calmly buoyant as he waits with the mayor and the small group of media, family and friends who are on hand for the presentation.
“You have every good intention, my dear father, but you will end up taking Fidel over in Cuba if you continue heading south,” cracks Young. And who knows if his father is smiling on the other end of the line, but the joke loosens up everyone in the mayor’s office, so when a police deputy delivers a round of hot, sweet Cuban coffee the vibe is muy tranquilo.
Welcome to the David Young show—not to be confused with the “Judge David Young” show that will air coast to coast in most major television markets next fall, but, rather, the engaging, entertaining and ongoing string of reality-based moments that comprise Young’s life, which is in its 48th season.
It’s a beautiful day in what for Miami passes as late spring. Blue skies with puffy clouds, it’s the kind of day that wears well in memory over time, and you have to figure it’s a day that will have a special place on Young’s growing docket of memorable achievements. Mayor Alvarez, by the way, is waiting to present Young with a proclamation declaring this day, Friday, May 25, 2007, as David Young Day in recognition of the judge’s 15 years of exemplary service in circuit court. But as cool as that is, it’s rather like icing on a cake.
Young is stepping down from the bench in order to move into the national spotlight as the star of Sony Pictures’ “Judge David Young,” a program that will air in syndication on Sept. 10. (Check local listings for time and channel.) A daytime court show that will feature Young dispatching justice as he sees fit, it was the first new syndicated program to gain national distribution for the fall season. Amidst all the buzz, Sony execs are sensing that there is something in Young’s candid, funny, sometimes quirky demeanor that is going to connect big-time with viewers.
“You’re going to love him. He’s a crack-up!” says Jennifer Kahn, when scheduling a press interview for Young. Kahn, a Sony publicity executive who is handling media relations for Young, is probably supposed to say things like that, but it doesn’t take long before you get the feeling that she really likes the guy. In town from New York, Kahn is hanging out today as Young starts out on what in many ways is a new life.
In a few weeks Young will be commuting to New York to begin taping the first season of shows. But before that there is the business of closure. When you are a sitting judge for 15 years, a lot of life passes by your gavel.
Young’s day began at 8:30 a.m. in his chambers, where the walls are decorated by only the dozens of clips that once supported framed art and photographs. His conference table is cluttered with a number of boxes containing stuff he’s acquired over the years, including a portion of his extensive collection of penguins. It’s Young’s last day in court, and among his staff there is that sweet, electric, sad vibe that feels something like the last day of school before summer vacation. After trading a few backstage barbs with the bailiff and a courthouse deputy, Young dons his black robe and makes for the courtroom.
Ask Young why Sony wanted him to be on a television show and he’ll tell you they like his humor and personality and believes he can bring a fresh perspective to the daytime court genre. In his 15 years on the bench Young has earned a reputation for being tough, compassionate, opinionated and entertaining. He has a flare for the provocative, too, as in the time he dismissed disorderly conduct charges against an elderly opera singer after she agreed to sing in court.
If Young’s name rings a bell, it’s most likely because in 2005 he presided over the much-publicized case of the two America West airline pilots who were eventually convicted and sentenced for intending to operate a plane while intoxicated. But in Miami he is perhaps better known for implementing an 18-month judicial monitoring program in which he meets with defendants on a monthly basis to oversee their progress.
By the time Young enters the courtroom at 9 a.m. the quiet hum of conversation is pitched at a key somewhere between anxiety and expectation as assistant state attorneys as well as public and private defenders gather before the bar while offenders who are on probation and their family members nervously wait in the gallery. Over to the side of the courtroom a group of young men, some shackled and all in orange jumpsuits, occupy the jury box in stony silence.
The bailiff calls the court to order and what transpires during the next two hours is compelling stuff—so sad and joyous and funny and human that you might think it’s all been carefully scripted.
Young recites the names of offenders and, one by one, each comes before him with his or her own story, his or her own journey in, through or out of the system.
“Anthony Johnson,” calls out Young, and a man dressed in jeans and a blue T-shirt stands up, making what he hopes is his last monthly appearance before the judge. On his shirt are the words “Hey yo, I got the ya yo.”
“Ya yo?” questions Young. “What’s that about?” “It’s a song,” says Johnson, as he studies the floor.
“Yeah? Sing it,” says Young.
Johnson looks up, confused. Did he say sing it? Young waits and Johnson begins to mumble through the lyric: “Hey you, I got the ya yo, you got the money.”
Wow, the guy’s wearing gangsta rap to his probation hearing.
“See you in 30 days,” sighs Young. “With the money.”
In the next minute, Young is talking to a 15-year-old kid who wound up in his courtroom because of an armed robbery conviction and, despite his age, is eligible for time in the state penitentiary. When Young tells the kid that he’s sending him instead to the juvenile sanction system for rehabilitation the boy blurts out, “I’m tired of being in jail.”
“All you should be saying is ‘thank you’ for sending you to a juvenile program,” snaps Young. “I’m saving you from state prison.”
Then shifting gears, Young asks the child for the names of the people he loves. The boy mentions his brother, Kevin, and his grandmother.
“Then put Kevin on your shoulder and don’t do anything you don’t want him to see,” says Young gently. “Put your grandmother on your other shoulder and don’t do anything you don’t want her to see. … Now, can you give me a smile? Come on, I’ve given you a break.”
A few minutes later, Young is terminating the probation of a young man who—ever cool—receives the good news with a nod. But standing beside him, his mother calls out, “God bless you,” to Young, who asks the woman if she wants a hug. Rising from behind the bench, Young meets the mother halfway for a big embrace that lasts long enough to warrant a commercial break. Kahn, the Sony media exec, begins to tear up.
Before you know it, Young is getting another hug, this time from a woman whose probation has been terminated. She squeezes him tight then spins around and, shouting “I can go!,” nearly runs out the courtroom.
And the morning is still young. The line of attorneys waiting to present their clients’ cases stretches from the bar to the gallery. They carry their overstuffed portfolios like weary passengers waiting to check in before a flight, and despite the human drama that is playing out, the sheer volume of stuff would make the morning a drudgery except that Young conducts his court like, well, like a television show that keeps you glued to the screen.
Turns out the Sony execs are right. The guy is funny. After one defendant pleads guilty to drug charges, Young, who is a member of Weight Watchers, says, “I know it’s tough [dealing with addiction]. I can end up like a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade if I don’t watch out.”
In the middle of proceedings, Young begins to talk about the time someone stole his identity on a credit card and purchased a quantity of inexpensive baubles. After about a minute of sharing, Young concludes, “I digress, but I will not pay retail for jewelry. …”
A moment later, the courtroom is hushed as a longtime Miami attorney confronts Young about the sluggishness of the courts in setting a date for a murder trial. The attorney has probably made hundreds of similar appeals in his career, but this time it’s personal. His wife was murdered and he was blinded when an adopted son allegedly became unhinged and shot them both. Standing at the bar with his daughter holding onto his elbow, the attorney wants the system to move faster.
“I’m just as frustrated as you,” says Young, who pauses as he looks into the face of the man who can’t look back. “No. I’m sorry, I could never be as frustrated as you are with this.”
Seated at a table on the floor off to the side of the courtroom, Kahn watches, transfixed. Her eyes are glistening, and hers are not the only ones.
After the morning session ends, Young attends a going-away party held in the upstairs lounge before he has to hustle to the mayor’s crosstown office to receive the proclamation. Folks from every strata of courthouse society arrive to wish Young well, give him a hug, and tease him a bit about being a big star. Downstairs, in the courthouse parking garage, it’s more of the same as workers wave and give Young a shout-out.
Driving through Miami’s lunchtime traffic, Young has time to reflect and talk. It’s gratifying, he says, to see people who18 months earlier were ensnarled in drug and alcohol addiction now come before him, their lives intact. He admits there’s some sadness to leaving the Miami criminal court system after 22 years and recalls how he started out as a prosecutor in the state attorney’s office, working under Janet Reno. He still remembers Reno telling him that his job was to seek justice, and he admires her compassion in instituting drug courts to help non-violent offenders.
He talks about his life partner, Scott Bernstein, a judge in Miami-Dade County criminal circuit court who oversees a drug court and who has been influential in Young’s understanding of the powerful role that government can play in a person’s life. He says that television, too, can play a role, that come this fall, he will tackle not only legal problems but social problems as well on “Judge David Young.”
He talks about his reputation for being funny and how he uses humor to loosen up people so they don’t miss his message. He says he was never a cutup in school and was too busy running things to clown around. He talks fondly of his time at Tulane, his degree in political science, his involvement in student governance and, in his junior year, his election as president of Tulane’s Associated Student Body.
He says he still maintains contact with Tulane by sitting on the Newcomb-Tulane College Dean’s Advisory Council. He says that his father, a well-known Miami attorney, probably first kindled his interest in politics. He jokes that he was not a great athlete and that politics is a great sport for not-great athletes.
And before you know it, Young is pulling into the parking lot of a sprawling strip mall where Miami Mayor Carlos Alvarez has humbly located his west-side office.
Alvarez has such an unassuming persona, dressed in a four-pocketed Guayabera, that it takes a beat before you realize he’s the guy in charge. He’s happy to wait for Young’s parents to arrive, but after about 45 minutes his schedule requires that he reads the proclamation aloud for the benefit of a local TV news cameraman on hand for the event. It’s funny how television somehow makes things real. It’s like the tree falling in the woods—if an event takes place but Channel 4 isn’t there to record it, did it happen? To what extent does reality exist outside the glare of media scrutiny?
You could keep pondering these things, but then you’d miss the arrival of Young’s parents, and how their son went out into the parking lot to be visual cue for them to know they’ve arrived at the correct place.
You’d miss the sweet moment of Young helping his mom out of the car and how, once inside the mayor’s office, the three sit closely side-by-side for a TV interview. And you wouldn’t see Young’s mother lean her head on his shoulder right in the middle of the interview, blissfully unconcerned by the camera planted just a few feet away.
On the evening news this will be a television moment, edited into a few sound bites and images. But right now it’s live and direct. The cameraman, who is also functioning as reporter, asks Burton Young if he will be watching his son on TV this fall.
“Well,” quips Burton, “I watched the show for all these 40-some-odd years and I will continue to.”
And like his son, Burton, too, can change gears to make a point. “David’s a person of grace,” he replies. “I don’t know anyone who has the depth of compassion that my son has, and all America will be the beneficiary of seeing what one human being can do.
“This was one heck of a trip getting here,” he continues, “and it demonstrated the love that we have for this kid.”
That’s good stuff, real stuff, and if Burton Young’s words don’t make it to the 6 p.m. news and to the ears of the Miami community, it will be a shame. Or, just maybe, it won’t. Kahn is smiling a smile that suggests she’s not thinking about sound bites or media kits or press releases.
It’s just another good moment in the David Young show.
Nick Marinello is a senior editor in the Office of University Publications and features editor of Tulanian.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org