By: David C. Knapp
James A. “Jim” Edwards had just finished speaking at a Civility in Litigation seminar for the Indian River Bar Association in Vero Beach, and was reviewing voice messages before getting into his car, when he came across a voice message from a fellow named Rick Scott. Needless to say, the call was quickly returned. Governor Scott told Jim that he was being appointed to fill the newly-created position as the 11th judge on the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach. The position was created by the Florida Legislature in 2014 because the Fifth DCA had a case load of 330 cases per judge, the highest in the state. In selecting Judge Edwards to fill this new position, Governor Scott not only chose an elite legal mind, but also someone who was born and raised in Central Florida, where the 5th DCA is located.
Judge Edwards was born at Orange Regional Medical Center (ORMC) in Orlando in 1954, the youngest of three children. His father was long- time Orange County Circuit Court Judge, Claude Edwards. His mother was Sarah Edwards, who was always active in community organizations. Judge Edwards met his wife, Marcia, in the 7th grade, when they attended Howard Junior High School in downtown Orlando. They started dating during their senior year at William R. Boone High School, where they both graduated in 1972. After Boone, both Judge Edwards and Marcia attended the University of Auburn.
1976 turned out to be a very big year not only for the United States celebrating its bicentennial, but also for Judge Edwards. Judge Edwards received his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with high honors in March of 1976, with minors in economics and French. Marcia received her Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education at the same time. Jim and Marcia were married the very next month, in April of 1976. During that same summer, Judge Edwards served as a Deputy Clerk for the Orange County Circuit Court, criminal division. Then in the fall of 1976, Judge Edwards and Marcia moved to Gainesville so that he could begin law school at the University of Florida.
While Judge Edwards attended law school, Marcia worked as an elementary school teacher. Judge Edwards became a member of the Moot Court Team, was an Appellate Advocacy in- structor, was inducted into the Order of the Coif, and graduated number 1 in his law school class in March of 1979. Judge Edward’s favorite instructor during law school was Jeffrey Lewis, who ultimately became Dean of the U.F. College of Law. Judge Edwards appreciated that Professor Lewis was always well prepared, and knew what he was talking about — something any good appellate attorney can certainly appreciate.
After graduating from law school, Judge Edwards became the 7th attorney to join Rumberger, Kirk and Caldwell, P.A., which started in the fall of 1978. At Rumberger, Judge Edward’s practice consisted of products liability defense (primarily automobile manufacturers), insurance defense, and attorney malpractice defense. He had his first oral argument within his first 2 years of practice. He was fortunate to have fantastic mentors at Rumberger, including Thom Rumberger, Bud Kirk, Dick Caldwell, and Ronald Cabaniss.
In 1979, Judge Edwards became Board Certified as a Civil Trial Attorney. That same year he left Rumberger to form a new firm — Roth, Edwards & Smith, P.A., where he added trucking liability and railroad litigation to his repertoire. In 1996, Judge Edwards became a certified mediator, and began mediating cases at both the trial and appellate lev-els. In 2000 Judge Edwards became partners again with one of his men- tors, Ronald Cabaniss, at Cabaniss, Conroy & McDonald, with offices in Orlando, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. Ultimately, Judge Edwards became a partner at Zimmerman Kiser Sutcliffe, P.A. in Orlando in 2011, where he remained until being appointed by Governor Scott.
During his years of practice, Judge Edwards has represented clients in numerous state, federal and appellate courts, in a variety of cases that have included banking, bonds, civil rights claims, corporate and partnership disputes, employment matters, false arrest and imprisonment, food poisoning claims, franchise claims, internet and print defamation, jurisdictional disputes, and personal injury or wrongful death cases result- ing from product liability claims involving automobiles, trucks, forklifts, manufacturing equipment, chemical sensitivity, toxic torts, construction equipment, and sporting goods. While his law offices were always in Central Florida, he handled cases throughout the state and in the Caribbean as well. In fact, he became a full member of the U.S. Virgin Islands Bar Association in 2010 because he had such an active practice there. He was elected to membership in the American Board of Trial Advocates and remains active in the Central Florida Chapter of ABOTA, which he describes as an outstanding organization made up equally by experienced plaintiffs’ and defendants’ trial lawyers.
As his experience grew, Judge Edward’s passion became promoting professionalism within the legal community. He was a member of the Orange County Bar’s Professionalism Committee for over 10 years, and served as its Chair for two years. He was a member of the Florida Bar’s Standing Committee on Professionalism for 6 years. He frequently wrote and spoke about professionalism. And according to Judge Edwards, one of the highlights of his legal career was receiving the 2013 William Trickel, Jr. Professionalism Award, which is presented annually by the Orange County Bar to an attorney who has practiced law for more than 15 years, and whose “conduct and career stands as a model of success built on unquestioned professionalism.” Even though Orlando has changed significantly during Judge Edward’s lifetime, he is proud that the Central Florida bar has remained highly collegial, and highly professional.
Judge Edwards has 2 grown sons — Scott James Edwards (33), whose practice includes civil litigation and appeals in Boca Raton, Florida; and Stephen Edwards (31), who works in the accounting department at Zimmerman Kiser Sutcliffe. Judge Edwards and his wife also recently became first time grandparents with the birth of Scott’s first son, Oliver James Edwards. During his down time, Judge Edwards enjoys light tackle saltwater fishing, and spending time with family and friends.
Judge Edwards is very proud to be a judge on the Fifth District Court of Appeal, which has always had a reputation for scholarship, and dealing with difficult cases on a timely basis. Judge Edwards has been impressed with how seriously all of the judges take their decisions, and how committed they are to getting the right result. He highly values the congenial, collegial relationship that exists in this court. Many of the 5th DCA judges have been Circuit Court judges. Judge Edwards hopes that his years of handling civil trials and appeals, dealing with wide ranging subjects, will add yet another, helpful perspective to the court. Judge Rick Orfinger has been Judge Edward’s mentor at the 5th, and Judge Edwards says he could not have asked for someone better to help him make this transition. Judge Edwards said that he feels very fortunate as well to have two excellent staff attorneys/law clerks and an experienced judicial assistant who are indispensable to him in his new position.
What are Judge Edward’s suggestions for appellate attorneys appearing before the Fifth District Court of Appeal? Keep your brief, brief; pickand focus on your best arguments, do not use a shotgun approach; and, of course, exhibit professionalism by being civil at all times to counsel and judges, in your briefs, motion practice,oralarguments, andoutsidethe courtroom. The judges on the Fifth DCA come to oral argument fully prepared, so you may go straight into arguing your case without the need to lay a detailed background first.
So what type of judge did Governor Rick Scott and the residents of Florida get when Governor Scott selected Judge James “Jim” Edwards to be the newest Judge on the Fifth District Court of Appeal? They got a home grown, tried and true Central Floridian, who knows the law, who knows the people of Florida, and who will do his very best to provide them with the best legal decisions possible.