TAMPA — Susan C. Bucklew remembers her earliest days as Hillsborough County's first female judge.
Lawyers would line up outside the court's traffic division to talk about their clients' cases. If judges planned a stiff punishment, the lawyers wanted to strike a deal.
"It was a learning experience," Bucklew said of those days in the early 1980s.
After more than three decades practicing law, nearly half of it as a district judge in the Middle District of Florida's Tampa Division, Bucklew's title soon will reflect her tenure and experience in the legal profession. This fall, she will become a senior judge.
"Senior status" is granted to U.S. district judges who are at least 65, with 15 year's experience on the federal bench. Some mistake senior status as retirement, but Bucklew isn't planning on slowing down.
"If I retired, I would just leave," she said. "I will still work as a judge."
Before reaching the federal bench, Bucklew said she thought district judges "were over there in this ivory tower and were untouchable."
"The types of cases you get to handle in federal court are of a greater variety, more complicated and challenging," she said. "I didn't think I had much of a chance of getting in."
She applied anyway, and then-Sen. Bob Graham recommended her to President Bill Clinton. Bucklew was sworn in as a federal judge Dec. 8, 1993.
"I was really in the right place at the right time," she said.
The local law community views Bucklew, 65, as a judicial pioneer. In addition to being the county's first female judge, she became the first female Hillsborough circuit judge in 1986.
"Susan certainly was a role model for young lawyers and other women," said longtime Tampa lawyer Judy Hoyer. "I don't think she has changed. She's smart, she's funny, and she brings a certain sort of down to earthiness to the law that I've always appreciated."
A Tampa native, Bucklew grew up on Clifton Street in Seminole Heights. She graduated from Hillsborough High School then went to Florida State University, where she majored in English.
"Mainly because I liked it. I liked reading," she said.
A senior year internship at Plant High School turned into a teaching job after graduation. She also spent stints teaching English at Seminole and Chamberlain high schools.
It was while she was a sophomore at Plant High that Hillsborough Circuit Judge Katherine Essrig got to know Bucklew.
"She was a very demanding teacher with high expectations of her students," Essrig recalled. "Not unlike in her former life of being a high school English teacher, she still has high expectations. We all looked to her as someone who set a high standard for us. Not just the women judges, but all the newer judges."
John Gary Maynard III, a Virginia lawyer, was a law clerk for Bucklew from 1995 to 1997.
"I suspect there's not a day that goes by that I practice that I don't recall a lesson she taught me," he said. "She was a great teacher who always took the time to sit and say what happened today and this is why I did what I did."
Adelaide Few, another lawyer and a close Bucklew friend for many years, said people criticized Bucklew when she became a judge because she had little trial experience.
After spending more than 10 years as a teacher and completing law school, Bucklew worked in the legal department for Jim Walter Homes. She stayed there until becoming a county judge.
"How important it is for all of us women to be in the right place at the right time," Few said. "It was the right time for all of us women to have someone like her to be the one to set the bar."
Bucklew received her law degree in 1977 from the Stetson University College of Law. Last year, the school inducted her into its Hall of Fame.
"She was a pioneer in terms of women in the judiciary," said Stetson law Dean Darby Dickerson. "She serves as a tremendous role model."
Some have also come to know the judge as a prankster.
Bucklew recently mimicked Britney Spears — complete with blonde wig and baby doll — during a Hollywood Squares-like session at a meeting of judges and lawyers to discuss legal issues.
Lawyer Caroline Black spent nearly every day in Bucklew's courtroom for two years during late 1980s.
"When you're in front of someone for that long, you get to know them pretty well," Black said.
You also get comfortable.
Black recalled occasionally taking off her shoes in court, only to have a prosecutor steal them and Bucklew to notice.
"She would call me to come up closer to the bench knowing full well I didn't have my shoes on," Black said.
But Bucklew's sense of humor came with lessons too, Black said.
"She was somebody who taught me about integrity, professionalism, being prepared and how important it is to listen, (and) how important it was to make a decision," Black said.
Christina Ramirez misses the camaraderie of working on Bucklew's staff. She became one of the judge's first law clerks in federal court and worked there from 1994 until last year.
"She's the kind of judge you imagine all judges should be," Ramirez said. "Smart and fair and hard working."
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