February 2013 - West Award Winner: Judge Firmat Walks Humbly as He Seeks Justice and Inspires Many
by Judge Andrew J. Guilford
Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God. That passage is on a card in my chambers. It was a favorite of President Jimmy Carter, who quoted the passage at his inauguration. Other presidents and judges like the passage. The Honorable Francisco F. Firmat lives the passage. Specifically, he works for justice and mercy with humility. More generally, his life is about doing and loving while on his walk down the path of life. The Orange County Bar Association is properly presenting its 2013 Franklin G. West Award to a very deserving candidate in Judge Firmat, appropriately in this year of his retirement from the bench.
As a young boy, early in Frank’s walk, he found himself in a Roman Catholic orphanage in Colorado unable to speak English and separated from his parents who were in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, perhaps permanently. Frank and his sisters were “Pedro Pans” or “Peter Pans.” These were children sent out of Cuba by their parents often because of fear that Castro might send the kids to the Soviet Union. Pedro Pans were sent to the United States with the hope—but not the guarantee—that their parents would be allowed to follow them. Frank’s father, a courageous Cuban judge, had decided with Frank’s mother to take the great risk of sending their children out of Cuba to America after concluding that there was no future for their family under Castro’s Communist regime. Fortunately, they eventually joined up with Frank and his sisters in the United States. Frank remembers how in 1961 he thought it was so appropriate that his new country celebrated something called Thanksgiving shortly after his parents arrived. These events began a remarkable American story of a man whose early years shaped in him core principles that led him to follow a path of providing humble service in the pursuit of justice tempered by mercy.
After a successful career as a lawyer, Frank Firmat began dispensing justice as a Municipal Court Judge at the precocious age of 35, and very soon was elevated to the Superior Court. When asked how he managed to receive such coveted appointments from Governor Dukemejian at such a young age, he humbly said, “God was good.”
Judge Firmat became well-grounded as a judge in Civil and Complex Civil litigation, and might have closed out his judicial career in the relaxed comfort of familiarity. But with his unbridled energy and desire to help hurting people, he boldly went where few chose to go: an assignment to Family Law. As usual, he quickly rose to a leadership position, becoming the Supervising Judge of the Family Law Panel. He then used that position to promote institutional change in what Judge Nancy Wieben Stock called “a marginalized justice system that had suffered from second-class status in the court system.” His open-door policy gave a meaningful voice in court procedures and courtroom policies to the largest section of the OCBA, the Family Law Section. Papers nominating Judge Firmat for the West Award said, “The former officers of that section are absolutely wild in their enthusiasm for his form of leadership.”
Judges face the challenge of making tough decisions to ensure that justice is done. Judge Firmat, forged by the events of his youth, has always brought a certain wisdom to that challenge, and, as is often necessary, his justice has been tempered with mercy. Judge Firmat has also pursued mercy and justice in his hard work beyond being a judge. The man has boundless energy that has benefitted the Orange County community and beyond. His focus has been on humanizing the pursuit of justice, most recently through improving access to justice for litigants who are at risk of being marginalized by the system.
Judge Firmat brings wisdom to his job that is reflected in the many organizations that have asked him to lecture on law-related topics. These organizations include The Rutter Group, the OCBA, the California Trial Lawyers Association, the Center for Judicial Education and Research, the American Board of Trial Advocates, CEB, and the Orange County Hispanic Bar Association.
During every year of his judicial career, Frank has been involved in activities related to the bar association, usually at the leadership level. Early on, he was a judicial participant in “Programa Shortstop,” a crime-diversion program for at-risk youth run by the Orange County Bar Foundation, where his Spanish language skills were invaluable. He has worked with the OCBA on community-based initiatives, such as the Court-Clergy Conference, designed to bring clergy to the courthouse to familiarize them with issues of paternity, juvenile dependency, delinquency, domestic violence, and divorce. Judge Firmat knew that when families are in crisis, sometimes the first person they turn to for guidance is their pastor, priest, or rabbi; it is essential that these families receive wise and informed advice from the start.
Judge Firmat’s hard work on the cause of access to justice was recognized in 2008 when he was selected to receive the very prestigious Benjamin Aranda III Access to Justice Award. A long list of contributions was cited when Judge Firmat won the award. Here’s a brief summary of Frank’s innovations and programs: Town Hall Meetings seeking input from stakeholders; a training program for temporary judges; a Self-Represented Party Calendar for cases where neither side has a lawyer; expedited judgments in family law; electronic transmission for service of domestic violence and elder abuse TRO’s; a Non-Litigation Track Program for folks who don’t want to fight; a Self-Help Forum for legal service providers to meet quarterly and discuss strategies to improve service to self-represented litigants; an Interpreter Intern Program providing individuals who can’t speak English (like the young Frank Firmat) with access to interpreters; collaborative court programs and procedures responding to the foreclosure crisis that have been models for other judges (including some federal judges); and mediation training for family law judicial officers.
Judge Firmat has been particularly skilled at mediation. At his core, Judge Firmat is a peacemaker who respects all sorts and conditions of humans, which makes him effective at resolving disputes.
Clearly, the remarkable American story of Judge Frank Firmat has all the trappings of professional success achieved through hard work. But the measure of this man goes to a much greater depth, a depth reflecting his kindness, spirituality, and wisdom. Those who know Frank know his most remarkable achievement is humbly touching the hearts and souls of so many people. When asked what his greatest achievement was, he said, “Truly my proudest achievement is in my relationships: those who walked the journey with me and made the journey much better because of their presence.” But then he was quick to humbly add, “And yet, none of them is someone I earned or deserved. They are all gifts, all grace that God brought into my life and in that way blessed my journey.” He wisely recognizes that friends are not accomplishments, but rather blessings bestowed upon him by God through many wonderful people.
On his life journey, Frank keeps a journal, and his entries are often poetic. His humility, and much more about the man, are reflected in this writing:
We can’t be filled with peace
while full of ourselves!
We first need to be squeezed, as a dishrag,
with the excess removed until we
are light and right and usable,
set free to find the humblest place,
vulnerable and small,
the place of grace and life,
openness and presence;
emptied so we can be filled.
The human side of Frank, and the soul of this man, is perhaps best revealed by glancing around his chambers. Frank is the devoted husband of Laura, and there is a wonderful picture of Frank and Laura as a very attractive couple in the 1970s, taken on their wedding day. Frank is the loving father of Frank Jr. and Allison, father-in-law to Allison’s husband Marke, and doting grandfather of Grace. On his desk is a pen holder presented to his father and namesake, Francisco Firmat, who retired in 1989 after 20 years with his company. On his walls there is a painting of an angel and another of rural Cuba hanging near immigration papers recording the young Francisco’s arrival in Florida. There is a photo of Frank and Allison taken by Laura at a church in New Mexico. There are just a few of the innumerable plaques he has received for his many areas of service involving several different organizations such as the OCBA, the Family Law Section, the Business Litigation Section, the Orange County Women Lawyers, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the Thomas More Society, the Orange County Trial Lawyers Association, the Loyola Institute for Spirituality, the Consumer Attorneys of California, and the Hispanic Bar Association. On his bookshelves are photos of religious leaders and quotes like, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” Another one says, “Put people before things, relationships before tasks.”
As Frank walks the walk, he finds guidance in metaphors, and some are visually present in his chambers. For example, there is a wooden Tinkertoy piece, a wheel with holes around the circumference for spokes that can then connect to other parts. Frank explains that the holes in the wheel are like the wounds we all have. But our wounds, like the holes in the wheel, allow us to connect with others. He captured a similar thought with these words:
Life is precious and every moment a pearl.
We are linked to life and to one another
By moments like an infinite string of pearls
That go back beyond remembering and forward
Beyond the time they become luminous . . . .
On a personal note, I can say it is a powerful reassurance to discuss with Frank someone who is hurting, and then later while riding in his car, see the name of that person taped to his dashboard on his list of people needing prayers.
So our Pedro Pan has grown up into a remarkable man of justice, mercy, and humility. Beyond his many accomplishments shines the soul of a man who has inspired many through his selflessness and generosity. In fact, that card in my chambers about doing, loving, and walking with God was given to me by Frank. It regularly inspires me and makes me grateful to know a man like the Honorable Francisco F. Firmat.
Judge Andrew J. Guilford is a United States District Judge, and the 2004 winner of the Franklin G. West award. He can be contacted about this article at Andrew_Guilford@cacd.uscourts.gov.