Former Hillsborough Circuit Judge Charlene Honeywell is sworn in as U.S. district judge

Judge Charlene Honeywell speaks at the Tampa Theatre on Friday during her investiture ceremony. Honeywell was appointed for life to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida by President Barack Obama.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Judge Charlene Honeywell speaks at the Tampa Theatre on Friday during her investiture ceremony. Honeywell was appointed for life to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida by President Barack Obama.

TAMPA

When Charlene Edwards Honeywell speaks to young people, she often tells them this: Be prepared for setbacks while pursuing your dreams.

The key, she says: Get back up. Keep going.

Honeywell's judicial ascent illustrates the message. For the past three decades, the 52-year-old native Floridian has navigated professional successes and obstacles with resilience.

On Friday her journey paid off. The former Hillsborough circuit judge was sworn in as a U.S. district judge.

Hundreds of people, including more than a dozen federal judges, gathered at the Tampa Theatre to witness Honeywell's investiture. Among those in the crowd were state judges, politicians, law enforcement officials, church members, lawyers and the judge's own elementary school principal.

Representatives for federal and state politicians read congratulatory messages. A soloist sang The Impossible Dream. And Honeywell's colleagues showered her with gifts, among them a large-print version of the King James Bible and the 2009 Yale Book of Quotations.

Honeywell's husband held the Bible as a chief judge swore her in. Her children and her mother helped her slide into her robe, with her mother taking care to make sure the garment sat just so.

Finally, the judge spoke. She pledged to serve with honor and integrity and to administer justice in a fair and impartial manner.

Peering through her reading glasses, Honeywell ended her remarks with the same words she uttered when she ascended to the state bench.

"May God give me the wisdom of Solomon," she said, "the patience of Job and the strength of Sampson as I embark on the new phase of my career."

Friday's ceremony was a formality. Honeywell has been serving on the federal bench in Fort Myers since December. Her early days have been spent reading motions and making decisions in civil and criminal cases. Her first trial may come in March.

Honeywell's appointment comes as no surprise to Tampa's legal community, where she is regarded as serious but fair-minded.

"Judge Honeywell had a distinguished career on the state bench in Hillsborough County," said John Fitzgibbons, an attorney and chair of Florida's Federal Judicial Nomination Commission. "I anticipate she will be equally distinguished as she begins her time as a U.S. district judge."

•••

As a child growing up in the '60s, Honeywell had a front row seat to integration, and with it a unique view of the power yielded by the legal system. She attended Howard University and University of Florida's College of Law.

Honeywell, who sat as a circuit judge for the past nine years, maintained a steady pace of strategic career moves.

She's hesitant to call her approach "calculated."

"I call it focused," she said.

A year after graduating from law school, the Pompano Beach native was hired by the public defender in Tallahassee.

Between 1981 and 1994 Honeywell would work on civil and criminal law for public entities, including several years as chief litigator for the city of Tampa.

At her core is a desire to serve and help, she said.

"People come to you because they need help with some sort of problem," Honeywell said. "So it's the opportunity to provide a service to your client whether it's a government entity, a criminal indigent defendant or a multinational corporation."

In 1994, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed her county judge.

A few months later she lost an election bid to keep that seat.

Honeywell — who had prepared professionally, earned key endorsements and ran a respectable campaign — felt devastated.

"That was one of my obstacles and I had to overcome it," she said. "Eventually I got the courage to get back out there and try again."

Honeywell spent the next five years practicing law with Hill, Ward and Henderson, where she eventually became the first African-American woman shareholder in the firm.

The 1999 swearing in of Chief Justice Peggy Quince inspired Honeywell.

"It rekindled in me the desire to try for the bench again," she said.

In 2001, Gov. Jeb Bush appointed her to a circuit court vacancy. She has run unopposed ever since.

•••

While President George W. Bush was still in office, Honeywell added her name to the applicant pool to replace Judge Susan Bucklew and Judge Patricia Fawcett, who had taken senior status.

When President Barack Obama took office, there remained a vacancy.

Honeywell was hearing closing arguments in a case on the day the White House called.

"I have never in my life taken a break during closing arguments in a trial," she said, her voice giddy. "I told the attorneys, 'I have to take this call.' "

The person on the line informed her that the president was nominating her for the federal judge position. That happened in June.

Federal judges are extremely powerful. They can overrule the legislature and are charged with interpreting the constitution.

Honeywell is modest in describing her impact on and off the bench. She calls herself "very normal" and enjoys spending time with her husband, a Tampa police officer, and two teenage children.

She is an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and has served as president of the Hillsborough Association for Women Lawyers and the George Edgecomb Bar Association.

Others aren't so restrained in proclaiming her virtues.

"She has been able to accomplish something extremely exceptional in the legal profession," said Kelly Chanfrau, president of the Hillsborough Association for Women Lawyers and a partner at Ford and Harrison in Tampa. "For a man or a woman to achieve her position as a U.S. district court judge … is exceptional."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or (813)226-3405.

Former Hillsborough Circuit Judge Charlene Honeywell is sworn in as U.S. district judge 01/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 12:32am]

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