Order in the court was more informal than usual on Feb. 15 during the investiture of D. Melissa Moore Stens as Flagler County Court judge at the Flagler Auditorium.
Moore Stens was elected to the Flagler County court bench in November to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Sharon B. Atack, who was having health issues. The seat was held by either Atack or her husband for 34 years.
In practice, Moore Stens began hearing cases on Jan. 8 at the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center in Bunnel. The ceremony at Flagler Auditorium offered her judicial colleagues a chance to invest her formally into the job. Moore Stens formally accepted her responsibilities in the presence of professional colleagues, friends and family.
Ceremonies began with the formal opening of court in the auditorium by Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre, a presentation of colors by the Marine Corps League Detachment 76, the pledge of allegiance by Moore Stens’ children, Brady, 11, and Mia, 9, and an invocation by the Rev. Charlene E. Cothran of Zion Baptist Church.
“This is a joyous occasion, one that we look forward to,” said Seventh Circuit Court Chief Judge William A. Parsons. Judges representing all eight courthouses in the seventh circuit sat on the Flagler Auditorium stage for the ceremony, opposite Moore Stens, her family and others.
Although this was formally a session of court, Parsons said applause, taking pictures and even laughter were allowed. Before the event was over, and not unlike many a cout session, there were even some tears.
“This is poignant for me because my first assignment was in Putnam County where I had the pleasure of swearing in Melissa,” Parsons said.
Presentations were made with the tools and symbols of being a judge.
Douglas S. Williams, president of the Flagler County Bar Association, presented the judicial robe and a reminiscence of starting a small law firm with Moore Stens. The firm was so small, Moore Stens would pretend to be a secretary to make the endeavor seem larger, he said. “She’s like a sister to me,” he said.
MaryEllen Osterndorf, president of Dunn-Blount Inn of Court, an organization dedicated to improving the skills, professionalism and ethics of judges and attorneys, presented a Bible to the new judge. Jackie Roys, president of the Volusia/Flagler Association for Women Lawyers presented a gavel.
Judge Dawn Fields presented a plaque and welcomed Moore Stens into the family of 322 county judges in Florida. There is, however, only one county judge in Flagler (and two circuit judges). Fields said there were 12,962 cases in Flagler last year. “Guess how many county judges there are in Flagler County,” she asked. “That’s right Chickie, you’re it.” It was likely the first time in Flagler County history that the county judge was referred to as “Chickie.” At least publicly and in a court session.
Parsons administered the oath of office as Moore Stens put her left hand on the Bible and raised her right hand, flanked by Mia, Brady, her husband, Mike Stens, and her mother, Julia Moore.
Judge Raul Zambrano, who recently left Flagler County to be a judge in west Volusia, mixed humor with solemnity as he delivered a formal welcome to the bench.
“Everyone you meet from here on will refer to you as your honor or judge,” said Zambrano, who drew laughter by saying his children call him judge and his wife says, “your honor, please take out the garbage.” The exception to this rule is the other judges, who address each other by first name. “Judges do not call each other judges,” he said.
Zambrano cautioned that judges gain weight. “We sit a lot,” he said, so he told Moore Stens to take care of herself. He also advised using the restroom before sitting on the bench. His practical advice included using the bathroom before sitting on the bench. But judges, like mayors and commission chairmen, have been known to take recesses with the express purpose of honoring nature’s call.
People will always remember what she says as a judge, so be nice, he advised. She should remember her authority comes from the people, he said. Zambrano remembered advice given to him on how to handle cases when the arguments from both sides are equal. “In every case, one party has the burden of proof. If the arguments are 50-50, the side with the burden of proof failed.”
Moore Stens pulled out a box of tissues from behind the podium before she started speaking. She choked up twice during her remarks and even passed a tissue to her mother.
“I’m so proud, honored and thrilled to be here today,” she said. “I’m living my dream.” Moore Stens thanked her professional mentors and the judges already enrobed. “Just by simply practicing in front of you I have gained a quality sense of how to run a courtroom.”
She thanked her children, husband, mother and paid tribute to her deceased grandmother and father.
As a county judge, Moore Stens hears misdemeanor criminal cases, traffic, civil cases where the controversy is $15,000 or less and small claims where the controversy is up to $5,000.
She was in private practice 10 years and served as an assistant state attorney with the office of the State Attorney, Seventh Judicial Circuit, before her election.
Fighting back the emotion, Moore Stens promised to “listen attentively,” to “not pre-judge,” to “apply the law” and to always provide a “fair and equitable hearing.”
Court was then adjourned so it could be readied for “The Women of Ireland” show Sunday.