Living the Motto “Men for Others”
By Mitchell Ramsey, Center for Professionalism Program Coordinator
“Men for Others” may seem like a mere high school tagline, but to Judge Michael Baggé-Hernández it meant so much more. Growing up in Tampa and attending Tampa Jesuit High, an all-boys Catholic school, he was quick to emphasize how much that phrase has stuck with him. With an excess of 50 mentees spread across the United States and still striving for more, he is the epitome of that phrase.
In my conversation with Judge Baggé-Hernández, he quickly credited some of those who mentored him in his career – some judges, some lawyers – but he spoke mainly about his mother and grandmother as his most important mentors. He stated that he looked up to both women for their barrier-breaking attitudes and how they persevered through many obstacles. His mother, Judge Virginia Hernández-Covington, Senior District Judge for the Middle District of Florida, was the first Cuban American woman named to any of Florida’s appellate courts and the first Hispanic judge for the Middle District of Florida. She even administered the oath during his investiture to the Hillsborough County Bench.
As he spoke about his grandmother, her shining light and influence on him clearly manifested themselves throughout the conversation. The judge stated that he always reminisces about her and the challenges she faced and overcame whenever he has a bad day. Political upheaval forced her and her family to leave Cuba and find sanctuary in the United States. The Castro regime seized her property, denied her due process of law, and excluded her from ever returning to the island of her birth, but she never allowed these challenges to deter her positive outlook or her gratitude to the United States. With these two women as his guides and mentors, he felt in the past, and still feels to this day, that he can surmount whatever he faces while channeling their strength.
One of the many unique aspects of Judge Baggé-Hernández’s career stems from his tenure as Assistant U.S. Attorney in Puerto Rico. As a native Spanish-speaking attorney, he felt confident in his abilities, but he quickly discovered that he needed to learn the legal terms and phrases in Spanish, which he did by studying Puerto Rican evidence and procedure codes. He stated that Puerto Rico was where he “earned his stripes,” working in a small office that had a lot to do. While prosecuting white-collar crimes, drug-cartels, and various gang-related organizations, he never faltered when facing agitations from criminal organizations.
“Whenever I would face [those things], I would always recall my grandmother’s strength and wanted to ensure true justice was served.” Whether having to wear bullet-proof vests for months or fearing for his and his wife’s lives, he always strove to help bring those responsible for horrific crimes to justice.
Judge Baggé-Hernández also spent time working at the United States Embassy in El Salvador as a Resident Legal Advisor and travelling through Latin America teaching the accusatorial legal system and training prosecutors and judges. He stated how he will always be thankful for being a part of that country’s history as it transitioned from different legal systems by helping with his past trainings and teachings but was prouder to have had the chance to be a mentor to those around him.
In explaining his fondness for mentoring, he stated that he may not be able to financially help in fighting injustice and protecting the rule of law, but he can donate his skills, knowledge, and time to help as many as possible.
As for his approach to mentoring, the judge instructed that to be a good mentor, one “has to be patient and let mentees be themselves.” He followed that up with saying how he is “there if they screw up, there if they succeed, but the success is their own.” He is there to be a guide to his mentees on their journeys through their careers and their lives.
When speaking about what impacts him the most being a mentor, he replied, “The biggest compliment to me is being told your words means something.”
Mentoring also allows Judge Baggé-Hernández to make life-long friends. He sticks with the mantra “men helping others,” because of his belief in what he calls “the bank of karma.” He tries to make “deposits” when he can.
While speaking on professionalism and how the definition changes across cultures and countries, he recalled many events that were customary to the local attorneys but surprised him. For example, he explained how in Colombia, counsels do not stand for the judge, not out of disrespect, but because they do not see standing in front of a judge as a professional standard. Whether or not American forms of professionalism fully translate across cultures, Judge Baggé-Hernández noted several universal standards: kindness to all parties, respect for opposing counsels, and humility and forgiveness for mistakes made.
From a judge’s point of view, he compared his position to that of an umpire in baseball. “You have to call balls and strikes and keep things controlled.” Explaining how he personally addresses unprofessionalism in his court, if it is egregious and unruly, he addresses it right then and there. If the actions are less egregious and they tight rope that “fine line” of professionalism, he will pull both counsels aside after the hearing and address it then. The judge believes each attorney has a duty of candor to the tribunal and the professionalism rules require each attorney respect this duty. He explained how attorneys should take responsibility for their cases and their practices and not blame their legal assistants for mistakes, they should Shepardize each case cited, and they should try to be familiar with the preferences of each courtroom.
As a Hispanic American, Judge Baggé-Hernández spoke on various prejudices and racial biases he has experienced both in front and behind the bench. One of his lighter experiences came from the judge’s litigation days when opposing counsels were having a private conversation in court next to him, speaking Spanish because they thought he was unable to understand them. He was able to hear every bit of their conversation and even responded in Spanish to let them know he understood. He also spoke on the times he faced the bias of being inexperienced by opposing counsel due to his youth. The judge noted that, “A less experienced lawyer can out-litigate an experienced lawyer by having a mastery command of the rules of evidence. Also having a good working knowledge of the rules of procedure are helpful, too.”
Although he has faced derogatory comments about his background, he perseveres through it all. He is motivated to provide the highest level of justice that his grandmother was denied in Cuba and to serve the country that gave her and her family freedom and the community that gave them a home. Some of his fondest memories of his tenure as a judge all regarded those who felt they had no voice in court. As a man who speaks four languages, English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, he prides himself on helping those who are either non-English speakers or speak with broken English. He spoke about the lack of interpreters in county civil courts, and the multiple occurrences in his courtroom where many who come before him are overcome with joy when he speaks in Spanish. He told stories of children being dragged to court by their parents to translate for them, grateful that the court could understand them, or of those, even while being ruled against, had faces of thankfulness all because he spoke the rulings in Spanish and in English. It is this little bit of aiding others, and Judge Baggé-Hernández taking great pride in doing that, that sums up his larger-than-life personality and additional “deposits” into the “bank of karma.”
When asked what he would like his legacy to be remembered as in one sentence, he let out a jovial laugh and replied with, “I want those to remember me as someone who could not be remembered in one sentence.” His biggest concern with his legacy? That he is always known to have lived true to the motto of being “a man for others.”