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Langham: Best Wishes, Judge Sojourner: [2023-02-01]
We bade farewell Tuesday to Judge Margaret Sojourner.
She was originally appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010 to the Lakeland District Office. There were admittedly some challenges to work through in that district, nestled between the bustle of Orlando and Tampa.
Lakeland was persistently a small-town district that had a small and committed local bar. But that evolved in the late 20th century as Orlando and Tampa each exerted influence and lawyers traveled more. It was a district in which some periodically had perceived various challenges or perhaps that some enjoyed a "home-field" advantage. Despite its size, Lakeland was a historic district in which it is believed an Office of Judges of Workers' Compensation location was first established in 1953.
I dabbled there myself in the 1990s. I don't recall the circumstances any longer, but I remember having to appear before Judge Vocelle. He had transferred there in 1986 after serving briefly in Miami. For some reason, old-timers tend to remember his transfer but forget that the vacancy he filled was created by a similar transfer.
Judge Vocelle was an often impatient man whom I perceived as never experiencing doubt. He was decisive and direct in my experiences, but we did not often see eye-to-eye substantively. There were those who had more to say about Lakeland over the years, but I will always remember Judge Vocelle. Interestingly, a similarly named James Vocelle was chair of the Industrial Relations Commission in the 1950s.
The LKL history included other names like Charles Hurt, prior to his transfer to Orlando in 1986. People sometimes express their belief that a judge's move is a very recent thing, but in 1986 Judge Hurt went to Orlando and thus facilitated Judge Vocelle's move up from Miami.
Charles Vocelle presided in Lakeland for a dozen years, followed by Judith Flanders' short stay (1998-99). Many judges filled in hearing matters in Lakeland after Judge Flanders' departure, and Judge Hofstad was appointed in 2000. Judge Sojourner was appointed to replace Judge Hofstad in 2010 and served there for seven years before transferring to Orlando in 2017. Now, after almost six years in Orlando and more than 12 years total, she is retiring from the bench. In the meantime, there is no Lakeland District any longer, lost to time and the convenience of technology.
I never practiced with or against Judge Sojourner and became aware of her only when she applied for the Lakeland vacancy. She joined the OJCC at an interesting time that included contemporaries such as Hon. Renee Hill (GNS), Hon. Neal Pitts (JAX and ORL), Hon. Stephen Rosen (JAX and SPT) and Hon. Joseph Farrell (ORL). Each name evokes memories. It is a tribute to her that she is nearly alone in that group; only Judge Pitts remains.
Judge Sojourner has spent an incredible career in central Florida. She was an associate at the Haas, Boehm, Brown, Rigdon and Secrest firm. She operated her own firm after that, worked in-house for an insurance company firm and was a partner at Langston, Hess for a dozen years before her initial appointment in 2010. The local bar was familiar to/with her as a practitioner and was immediately a presence there. She quickly became known in LKL as a no-nonsense judge with an affinity for the rules and a deep knowledge of the statute. She was immediately perceived as a dramatic change there. Her focus on transparency and predictability was a service to the lawyers and parties.
As is my habit when a new judge is appointed, I recall calling around within a few months of her taking the bench. I remember comments like "breath of fresh air" and "certainly different." As I conversed with lawyers, my general perception was that LKL changed when she arrived. She was decisive, fair and industrious. Some perceived that as better and seemingly longed for the "old days."
But, everyone I spoke with believed her to be fair and patient with the lawyers who were striving to get the job done. There were those who thought she was too stringent as regards some rule or requirement, but when I asked pointedly, "Isn't that what the rule/statute says?" to a person, they conceded she was right in the particular ruling they were lamenting.
The bar quickly adapted to her presence, and she was quite effective at managing a docket. Trials were scheduled, deadlines were enforced and the statute was followed. During her tenure in LKL, the process and practice there became predictable and stable in an unprecedented manner.
Judge Sojourner came to Orlando when Judge Condry departed in 2017. Those were some difficult shoes to fill. And, in her inimitable style, Judge Sojourner not only took on his docket but immediately assumed the responsibilities of administrative judge in that busy office. She was amazing in her ability to step into the two roles and manage that office with such efficiency and finesse.
Judge Sojourner has skill when it comes to human interaction, and it showed. She remained in that role until just recently, when Judge Pitts assumed the administrative role as we prepared for Judge Sojourner's retirement.
In the course of a dozen years on the bench, she has waded through a plethora of challenging litigation situations, dealt with an array of colorful and competent attorneys and presided over hundreds of final merits hearings. She brought stability to District Lakeland and fostered close collegiality, both in the local bar and among the practitioners who traveled there. She maintained a steady course in Orlando and oversaw our relocation out of the city center there. She has been a part of our central Florida workers' compensation community for more than a few years, a leader in the bar and bench.
I will miss her presence, patience and persistence. She brought dedicated service to her time with the OJCC, and we (Florida) were fortunate to have her. She leaves behind many friends and colleagues. She leaves behind a functioning and efficient district office. And, she focuses on a future in which we all wish her the best.
Godspeed, Judge. May the road rise up to meet you. May your blessings be many and your troubles be few. Thank you for your service and example.
David Langham is deputy chief judge of the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims. This column is reprinted, with his permission, from his Florida Workers' Comp Adjudication blog.