Phillip A. Hubbart

June 14, 2011 Phillip A. Hubbart

Honorable Phillip A. Hubbart

A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.

   –Joseph Campbell, author, philosopher, teacher (1904-1987)

I became a criminal lawyer on the corner of Bird Road and Dixie Highway on November 3, 1970. I had just passed the bar exam and was driving downtown to a job interview. I didn’t have any great prospects and knew little about Miami law firms or even the practice of law, but hope springs eternal and it blossomed in this mundane intersection. It was election day and Phil Hubbart was standing on a small island that is no longer there, holding up a campaign sign while waving at cars, seeking votes for public defender. I pulled over to lend moral support and another pair of arms. Phil finally got tired and suggested coffee at the Hot Shoppes on the corner. He offered me a job and I promptly accepted. Fortunately, that night he won the election.

Hubbart recruited a young band of lawyers, fresh out of law school, too young and inexperienced to know what they were in for. The ten of us were sworn in on January 5, 1971. An auspicious day. Only ten to represent all the poor people arrested in Dade County. Surely an impossible task. But it soon became even more perilous. The old PD’s office was a joke. It had part time lawyers who came in on Tuesdays and Thursdays and waived jury in every case. They worked those two days and had a private practice the rest of the week. Hubbart pledged to change all this, and change it we did.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that, “[I]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” But that right was of no value to the poorest defendants until 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright. In Gideon, the Court, interpreting the right to counsel, recognized that “in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”

Gideon had been convicted without a lawyer, but was acquitted on remand with an appointed lawyer. What better proof the Supreme Court got it right? The absurdity of indigents defending themselves against professional prosecutors was over. The tectonic plates were shifting in the criminal courts and the old guard was frightened of the change. Dade County created a public defender office, but it didn’t have any teeth until Hubbart was elected.

He had the vision of a real law office representing those too poor to hire private counsel. Not a paper tiger. Not a lawyer in name only. But a real lawyer who aggressively and competently represented the poor, the weak and the despised. He was a lone voice in the wilderness. The system had no interest in changing, and only sought to continue the way things had always been. Real lawyers meant more work, and perhaps for a change, the state might not convict everybody.

We ten made a pact with Phil to demand a jury trial in every case. A radical departure which outraged the incumbent judges. The judges loved the old system since it quickly reduced their case loads and left the afternoons open for golf. Immediately we caused a huge log jam of pending trials. In fact, I started a second degree murder trial the next day, January 6, 1971, with my trial partner Dennis Holober. Somehow, I can’t recall at this distance whether the client was acquitted, but I am sure of one thing — I didn’t contribute much to the result.

Hubbart was the ultimate professional. He demanded that every defendant get equal treatment, echoing Justice Hugo Black that the type of trial a man gets shouldn’t depend on how much money he has. Beautiful words, but until Hubbart took over the PD’s office, it was an aspiration rarely accomplished. And we did it on a shoestring. The office budget that first year was $125,000 and we assistants were paid a munificent salary of $8,500. I didn’t complain since that was more than I ever made before. I rented an efficiency within three blocks of the Justice Building so I could grab a few hours of sleep each night.

The reaction to our bucking of the system was quick and forceful. They brought in judges from all over the state to try cases in an effort to break our will. Trials went deep into the night and verdicts at 1, 2 and 3 am were not unusual. One week I tried three jury trials. The battle lasted for 18 months, and finally the judges recognized reality and the system accepted that poor people could get the same type of trial as rich ones.

Those eighteen months of trench warfare made us battle-hardened veterans, mature beyond our years. Nothing could intimidate us. Hubbart never gave an inch, nor did we.

This radical change in the justice system was the product of one man, Phil Hubbart. He worked unceasingly for this ideal. He provided all the support he could to each of us. We labored long and hard knowing he would unquestionably back us up. There was no political in-fighting such as plagued the State Attorney’s Office. When Denaro and I were held in contempt for refusing to turn over incriminating evidence to prosecutors, Hubbart appeared and sprung us from a nasty holding cell in the DC jail. We didn’t even have to drink the Kool Aid or eat a baloney sandwich.

Hubbart spent 6 years as the PD, then moved on to the Third District Court of Appeal where he ascended to chief judge. He loved the academic part of the law and the appellate court was a perfect fit. He was a great trial lawyer but the hustle of the criminal courts was not in his blood. The ten of us feasted on it until we reached burnout and dropped off one after another for private practice. The office has burgeoned since then and now has 185 assistants and an equal number of support staff. Perhaps it is just nostalgia, but it is not the same. It would be hard to match the spirit and camaraderie of the original group. Over the years, many fine lawyers have passed through those doors, but I have a special place in my memory for the original wild bunch.

For those of us who were assistant PD’s from January 1971 through 1976, we directly owe our careers to Hubbart. Those who arrived afterwards indirectly owe the same homage. The creation of the office, its aggressive attitude and incomparable experience, is attributable to one man. We received a priceless gift.

I have watched a lot of awards given over the years to judges and lawyers. I have even gotten a few myself. But for some reason, Hubbart has never gotten the recognition he deserves. Hubbart’s vision and energy fundamentally changed the system of justice in Miami. No single person has done as much, yet who acknowledges it today? His legacy is a public defender system that is among the best in this nation, but that is not enough. Hubbart is a quiet and humble man who seeks not fame or recognition but rather the contemplative life of a thinker. It is to our disgrace that we have not done more to recognize him. The Justice Building was re-named a few years ago after the former State Attorney Richard Gerstein. If there was any justice, it would be named after Hubbart because it is he who brought justice to the building.