By Dawn M. McMahon
On June 17, 2011, Governor Rick Scott appointed Judges Stephanie W. Ray and Ronald V. Swanson to Florida’s busiest state appellate court, the First District Court of Appeal.
Judge Ray graduated with honors from Florida State University College of Law in 1995. She began her legal career as an associate attorney at Ausley & McMullen, P.A. in Tallahassee, Florida where she gained experience in litigating complex commercial cases under the guidance of Senior Partner Dubose Ausley. In 2000, she accepted a position as the Associate/Assistant Dean at Florida State university College of Law. For the next eight years she worked with Dean Donald J. Weidner who taught her the leadership skills and work ethic that have provided the basis for her great professionalism and personal integrity today. These two special mentors, Duby Ausley and Don Weidner, were invited to speak at Judge Ray’s recent investiture.
Since 2008, Judge Ray has been the Chair of the Public Employee Relations Commission, a panel that adjudicates labor and employment disputesbetweenthegovernmentand its workers. Her decisions as Chair of PERC gave her valuable, deliberative experience in the quasi-judicial setting, and appeals before the Commission were conducted before a three person panel, much like the collaborative process on the district court.
In addition to her commitment to her career, Judge Ray believes in the importance of giving back to the community. Judge Ray served on the Second Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission from 2002-06 and served as Chair for the Commission from 2005-2006. She actively participates in The Florida Bar Standing Committee on Professionalism, serving as Chair, 2010 to present; and Vice Chair 2008-10; The Florida Bar Labor & Employment Law Section, Executive Council; The Florida Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism; The Florida Bar Appellate Practice Section, Executive Council; The Florida Bar Judicial Nominating Procedures Committee; William H. Stafford Chapter of the American Inns of Court, as Master of the Bench, and before that, Secretary; Tallahassee Women’s Lawyers, Board of Directors, Director of Mentoring; Justice Teaching Volunteer for Florida State university Schools; Florida State university College of Law Alumni Association Board of Directors, President-Elect, and before that, Secretary; and the Tallahassee Bar Association.
For fun, Judge Ray enjoys spending time with her husband and two young children. Demonstrating her self-described, “goal oriented” personality in both her professional and personal lives, she somehow finds the time and energy to train for marathons. Judge Ray is an avid runner, and she has completed numerous half marathons and one marathon in the past five years.
Judge Ray’s advice to attorneys arguing before her is to listen closely to the judges’ questions. “There is a reason behind every question asked by the judges during OA. We come to OA prepared and knowledgeable about the record and legal issues in the case. So if we ask you a question, pay attention to what we are asking you and be sure you answer the ques- tion directly.” “If you do not know the answer to a question we ask, then just say ‘I don’t know.’”
Judge Swanson, meanwhile, is the “last guy who thought he would end up as a judge.” He attended Florida State University as a young seventeen year old, married upon graduation and began a teaching career along-side of his wife at the Florida School for the Blind. Deciding he wanted to further his education in the study of the law, Judge Swanson obtained his juris doctor from the University of Florida in 1973 and law school “scared him straight.” He graduated from law school toward the end of the Vietnam War and felt a strong allegiance to his country, so he joined the United States Navy as a prosecutor.
Judge Swanson served in the United States Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps for the next twenty years, retiring as a Navy Captain in 1995. Judge Swanson served in numerous active duty assignments, including on ships of the Atlantic Fleet; Special Counsel to the Vice Chief of Naval operations during the First Gulf War; a 1988 assignment as counsel in the Persian Gulf; duty at Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Commanding officer, Naval Legal Service office, Central Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida.
In his “spare time,” Judge Swanson attended post-graduate school at George Washington university where he obtained his Masters in Law and graduated with the highest honors in 1982. From 1982-85, Judge Swanson served as a Military Judge for the Navy and Marine Corps Trial Judiciary. He wryly recalls his first trial as a Military Judge. As a new judge, he felt the need to share his legal knowledge with everyone in the courtroom. When the trial was over, his mentor, Captain Maitland Freed, imparted unforgettable words of wisdom to Judge Swanson: “Ron, you don’t get paid by the word. They just want a decision.”
Judge Swanson received many military awards and decorations during his time of service, including the Legion of Merit and multiple awards for the Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Achievement Medal, overseas Service and National Defense Medal.
After his retirement from the united States Navy, Judge Swanson joined the State Attorney’s office in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Ap- pointed to the County Court bench in 2000 by then Governor Jeb Bush, Judge Swanson continued his role in the judiciary in the “people’s court.” Judge Swanson enjoyed his time on the County Court bench. He learned early in his career that sometimes the smaller issues are the ones that are most important to the litigants. “And if it is an important issue to the litigants then it must be important to you [as a judge].”
In 2003, former Governor Jeb Bush appointed Judge Swanson to the First Judicial Circuit Court where he remained on the bench for the next eight years. As a Circuit Court judge, Judge Swanson strove to remember his roots and incorporate the values of his working class family into his courtroom on a daily basis.
While Judge Swanson has certainly enjoyed his fourteen years of experience on the bench as a trial judge, he looks forward to working as a judge at the appellate level. “As a trial judge you often times have to act as a ‘gun fighter’ with less than thirty seconds to decide an issue. In the appellate court you have time to research, review, and reflect upon the decision you are making. You have more time to get it right.”
As a judge, Ronald Swanson always tries to render fair decisions in a timely manner, based upon what he believes the law to be at the time. His advice to attorneys practicing before him is to “be honest” with the judge and with the court. “There is no one case that is worth the loss of your reputation. The court has to believe that you are advocating with profes- sionalism and integrity.”
On behalf of all practicing attorneys in the state of Florida, we welcome Judge Ray and Judge Swanson to the First District Court of Appeal.