Sunday, December 20, 2015
Courageous Federal Judge Howell Melton, R.I.P.
1923-2015: U.S. District Judge Melton remembered for kindness and ability to remain calm in big trials
Judge Melton was 92 and died at his St. Augustine home Friday
By Larry Hannan Fri, Dec 18, 2015 @ 6:41 pm | updated Fri, Dec 18, 2015 @ 6:50 pm
He is best known to the public for being the presiding judge in a seven-month trial of a Colombian drug kingpin. But lawyers and judges said Friday they would remember U.S. District Judge Howell W. Melton as a kind and smart man who was a role model to everyone.
Judge Melton, 92, died early Friday at his home in St. Augustine, his family said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge James Klindt, clerked for Judge Melton and then prosecuted cases in front of him as a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Klindt said Judge Melton was a role model for all the younger lawyers and judges who knew him.
“He was an institution here,” Klindt said. “He set the tone for this courthouse and we feel his presence here every day.”
Klindt’s practiced law for 29 years and the highlight of his career was the two years he clerked for Judge Melton, he said.
Susan Black, senior judge on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, said every judge should strive for Judge Melton’s demeanor.
“He had the ideal calm temperament to be a judge,” Black said. “And he was just so smart.”
He never got rattled and his rulings were always well-thought-out, even when he had to make a decision quickly, Black said.
The two had both been state judges before being appointed to the federal bench, with Judge Melton arriving a few years earlier. Black said Judge Melton became a great friend and helped her navigate a federal court system that was different than what she was used to on a state bench.
“He was a great mentor,” Black said. “I used to tease him that he even looked like a judge.”
Judge Melton was born in Atlanta and grew up in the Florida Panhandle. He enlisted in the U.S. Army after Pearl Harbor and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war he received a law degree from the University of Florida in 1948 and ended up practicing law until he was appointed to the 7th Judicial Circuit bench in 1961.
During his years on the state bench Judge Melton also was a founding trustee at Flagler College when the university opened its doors in 1968. He remained on the board for 40 years.
Judge Melton’s appointment to the federal bench was the first appointment made by Jimmy Carter in 1977 after he became president. In 1987 and 1988 Judge Melton got national attention when he was the judge in the case of Carlos Lehder, a Colombian drug lord who was co-founder of the Medellin drug cartel.
Lehder is a character in the Netflix series Narcos that aired this year. The show dramatizes his arrest, but not his trial.
“Carlos Lehder vowed that if he was ever captured, he’d have a federal judge killed once a week,” Klindt said, adding that security in the old federal courthouse was incredible during the seven-month trial.
Black remembered that snipers were on the roof of the courthouse directly above her courtroom during the trial and joked that if anyone came into the courthouse, they’d have to go right through her courtroom to get Lehder.
But Klindt, who was clerking for Judge Melton during the trial, said he never saw his boss get angry, scared or frustrated even though he was being guarded around the clock by U.S. deputy marshals the whole time.
In a 1990 interview with the Times-Union, Judge Melton said the Lehder trial’s length and complexity made it the most difficult case he ever heard as a judge. Lehder was convicted and sentenced to life without parole, plus an extra 135 years.
Judge Melton also issued a landmark ruling on sexual harassment involving the Jacksonville Shipyards that is still cited today and supervised the federal court control over the Duval County jail for years because of overcrowding and other concerns, at one point finding city officials in contempt of court for not complying with his orders.
Attorney Bill Sheppard tried multiple cases in front of Judge Melton and said he was always fair.
The first time he tried a case in front of the judge, Sheppard said he made a mistake due to inexperience, and Judge Melton patiently explained what he’d done wrong and didn’t lose his temper or yell at him the way other judges would, Sheppard said.
“He was a total gentleman from the first time that I met him to the last time I saw him,” Sheppard said.
Judge Melton assumed active senior status on the court in 1991, where he handling limited number of cases for two more decades before his retiring in 2014.
He is survived by his wife Catherine, son Howell Melton Jr. of Orlando and daughter Carol Melton of Washington, D.C.
A memorial service will be in St. Augustine in early 2016. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions in Judge Melton’s memory be made to Flagler College, 74 King St., St. Augustine, FL 32084.