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Everglades judge stands his guard

U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler brings a deep faith and integrity to his world of the law.

Published May 18, 2003

MIAMI - He needs help getting to the bench. He has had a hip replaced, undergone heart surgery, even survived a massive stroke.

But 80-year-old U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler is hardly fading away.

When the stroke paralyzed his right arm, Hoeveler taught himself to write with his left hand. He's having a pool installed in his Coral Gables home for physical therapy. Five days a week he's on the ninth floor of the federal courthouse overseeing nearly 50 cases.

Now he has drawn a line in the sand over the Everglades and challenged Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature to cross it. He did it, he said, because "it's the right thing to do."

In a stinging four-page order, Hoeveler (pronounced HOOV-ler) lambasted the Legislature for passing a sugar industry-backed bill that would extend the deadline for cleaning up pollution in the Everglades from 2006 to 2013. Hoeveler wrote that he was "dismayed" that the Legislature would so swiftly pass a bill so "clearly defective."

"I think Bush is a good man and he means well," Hoeveler, a lifelong Democrat who voted for Bush last year, said during an interview at his office last week. "But I'm afraid he fell into the hands of those who don't like the Everglades."

Now, Hoeveler said, he no longer trusts Bush and his appointees to keep their promises to clean up the phosphorus pollution flowing into the River of Grass. That's why next month the judge will appoint a special master to ensure steady progress by the agency in charge of the cleanup, the South Florida Water Management District.

He compared it to posting a guard.

"When the governor signs this bill - and he will, I think, sign it - the South Florida Water Management District has got to be watched," Hoeveler said.

Hoeveler said he has heard nothing but praise for blasting the Legislature.

"I don't think they realize in Tallahassee what the reaction has been," he said. "Everyone I meet comments, "Do it! Do it! Do it!' "

Before the judge's order, Bush had lashed out at the bill's opponents, accusing critics of distorting the legislation. Since then, Bush has hired a pair of attorneys to comb through the bill to ensure it complies with Hoeveler's order.

The governor said he found Hoeveler's order puzzling. "It's quite an unusual legal statement," Bush said. "It didn't have a lot of law in it."

Hoeveler has no doubts about what he did: "That's my position until somebody tells me I'm wrong."

In Hoeveler's corner office, two windows overlook Miami's downtown sprawl. But on the wall behind his chair hangs a painting of a placid Everglades scene by Florida artist Albert "Beanie" Backus.

On his desk, near the Bible he reads every day, Hoeveler keeps a ceramic jug labeled "Humble Opinions" containing rulings overturning his decisions.

They don't fill the jug.

He has churned out opinions on subjects ranging from racketeering to the Geneva Conventions. Yet since he was appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, Hoeveler has consistently been one of Florida's least-reversed judges.

He has landed in so many raging controversies he once chaired a Florida Bar committee advising judges how to handle high-profile cases.

Yet even former adversaries refuse to criticize him. When former Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro dealt with an overcrowded jail by sticking inmates in tents, Hoeveler threatened to hold him in contempt. Navarro now calls him "a great statesman," and says, "I can't stop praising him."

And when Hoeveler oversaw the yearlong drug smuggling trial of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, the deposed dictator saluted him.

"The one shining light through this legal nightmare has been your honor," Noriega told him.

Although his stance on the Everglades has delighted environmental activists, Hoeveler has not always sided with them. In 1981, he turned down a bid by the Florida Wildlife Federation to block construction of part of Interstate 75 that they feared would cause tremendous environmental damage.

He has been praised as a staunch defender of the First Amendment. In 1983, he struck down a Miami ordinance intended to regulate cable pornography. At the height of the Noriega case, when photographers crowded the courthouse parking area awaiting the dictator's arrival, Hoeveler would stop his car to chat.

But he also ordered CNN not to broadcast tapes of Noriega talking with his attorneys. His order was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hoeveler has a soft spot for the press, though. His wife, Mary Griffin Smith Hoeveler, was arts editor of the Miami Herald in the 1970s. She resigned when he took the bench, to avoid conflicts.

The freewheeling "Griff," as she was known, was an avid reader with strong opinions who could talk on any subject, usually with a cigarette hanging from her lip. Fifty years after they wed, Hoeveler said he still got tongue-tied thinking about her.

When she died in 2000, four months after his stroke, he was left with just the law. He has worked hard to get well enough to return to work, and he is determined to stay on the bench until he's carried out.

"When Mrs. Hoeveler passed away," said former clerk Barbara Junge, "this became what he lives for."

Hoeveler was born in Paris in 1922. His mother was French, his father a smitten World War I doughboy from Pittsburgh. After his birth they moved to Philadelphia, where his father sold truck parts. Hoeveler recalls being a mediocre student but an excellent basketball and tennis player.

The shrewdness of Philadelphia lawyers is a cliche, but to Hoeveler it was an inspiration. From an early age he decided that's what he was meant to be. World War II intervened, although it was all but over by the time his Marine battalion shipped out.

Upon his return, he buckled down at Bucknell and netted good enough grades to be accepted by Harvard Law School. While there, he met the Wellesley girl he would marry. She was the one who persuaded him to give up the Philadelphia part of his dream. In 1950 they moved to Miami, where he joined his father-in-law's firm, Knight, Smith and Underwood, where he worked for 27 years.

Hoeveler's military service left one abiding legacy. Although he was never shot at, the time he spent overseas focused his attention on his Christian faith. It became a guiding force in his life.

"He's a very strong believer," said another former clerk, Karen Throckmorton, now deputy director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami law school. "He's always been a good counselor for me on verses, and on trying to live a daily walk that would honor Christ."

He won't work on Sunday. Before he sentences someone, he says a quick prayer. Despite his many accomplishments, including having the bar's annual award for integrity named for him, he has remained humble, his former employees say.

Hoeveler was preparing to hear the case of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy who became the center of an international custody dispute, when "he had a massive stroke, coupled with a heart attack at the same time," said Junge, his clerk at the time. "It was touch and go a couple of times."

Junge said when she visited him "his first words to me after he came out of it were, "I'm sorry.' Because we'd been getting ready for these hearings in Elian and we'd done all this work, he felt as though he had let us all down. I was like, "You gotta be kidding me.' "

The reason he has recovered as much as he has, Junge said, "is his determination to improve and his deep religious belief that he's going to get better."

Still, there are gaps. He used to play a mean boogie-woogie on the piano. No more. For years he read legal textbooks for a service that provides recordings for the blind. He can no longer enunciate clearly enough. During stressful trials he would play Nerf basketball with his clerks. The hoop doesn't get much use anymore.

But mention that his signature on the Everglades order seems shaky, and Hoeveler indignantly grabs a pen to demonstrate how he painstakingly writes each letter. His writing is a sensitive point, Junge said, because of his sense of what is right.

"It's not right in the world for him not to be able to sign his name," she said. "Just like it's not right in the world for the legislative process to be short-circuited on the Everglades."

- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which contains information from the Miami Herald and the New York Times.

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