The first thing 13th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Christopher C. Sabella tells law students on the first day of class is that he wants them to be “as comfortable in the courtroom as they are in their own living room.” Now that doesn’t sound very easy, but he goes on to say that one of the best ways to become comfortable in the courtroom is by preparing. In fact, the three top things you need to remember in the courtroom are, “Preparation. Preparation. Preparation!”
Below are questions we asked Judge Sabella during our interview, along with his answers and his advice.
Tell us a little about your career before becoming a circuit judge with the 13th judicial circuit court?
Before my career as a judge with the 13th judicial circuit I had two of the greatest jobs that you can imagine. I served as the legal adviser for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office for a total of 12 years where I represented the sheriff, the agency and individual deputies in lawsuits that were filed against those different entities. I left the sheriff’s office and went to the U.S. attorney’s office and I served as an assistant U.S. attorney for a short period of time where I prosecuted federal cases in United States court. And one of the greatest feelings was to walk into court and to say I represent the United States of America. I’ll never forget that, that was a highlight of my career. Eventually I did return to the sheriff’s office as the deputy chief legal adviser where I supervised other attorneys and ultimately represented the agency, mainly in federal court in use of deadly force cases, until I was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to be a circuit court judge here in the 13th judicial circuit.
So what in your legal career has guided you the most in your life?
I think the one most important thing that has guided me the most in my legal career, and particularly my time on the bench, is that I’ve learned how to treat people. The thing that I have learned over the years being a judge is, that people treat you the way that you treat them, and I treat everybody with the greatest amount of respect.
I’ve had individuals, even young men, who I’ve sentenced to prison for long periods of time – even one that I remember that I sentenced to life in prison – but the way that I had treated him throughout the course of the proceedings, and the way that I treated him at the time that I sentenced him, he left the courtroom thanking me even though he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison. It just shocked me that he was able to treat me with such respect. I think that he was able to do that – and actually did that – because I had treated him with respect. I feel that that’s very important, and not just in the practice of law, not just in the courtroom, but in everyday life. You interact with people. Treat everybody with respect and they’ll return that respect.
In July 2010 you were recognized by Tampa Bay Magazine as Tampa Bay’s top lawyer in law enforcement. Was law enforcement an area of law you always had an interest or was it something you developed a passion for?
The time that I spent representing the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the time that I spent with law enforcement was something that I developed a passion for. In fact when I graduated from law school I had no idea that law enforcement agencies even had in-house counsel. It was a time when I was looking for a job and my cousin who was a judge here locally, a county judge, knew the chief legal adviser at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. He knew that I was looking for a job, so he called him and he agreed to meet me and gave me an interview, then hired me as a law clerk while I was waiting for my bar results. During that time, I guess I must have impressed them because when I got my bar results back they hired me as a legal adviser. I then spent the next six years there representing them as a legal adviser. During that time I developed an incredible passion for law enforcement. I ultimately was recognized by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as an expert in use of deadly force. I was on a committee picked by the governor to investigate officer-involved shootings, and ultimately developed a curriculum for FDLE for the investigation of officer-involved shootings. I represented many officers in court for use of deadly force and developed an incredible passion for law enforcement.
You have been teaching trial skills at WMU-Cooley since 2014. What inspired you to go into teaching?
The thing that inspired me the most to go into teaching law students is my experience with young lawyers in my profession and my time as a judge. I always take the opportunity to spend time with young lawyers because I believe that they are the future of our career. Coming here and teaching law students is an opportunity to address them at an early point in their career and to assist them in becoming not only good lawyers – but great lawyers.
Tell me about your style of teaching. What do you find your students appreciate about it?
Students have told me often that they appreciate my teaching style. So it’s caused me to wonder what it is I’m doing right in the classroom. I think that, first of all, teaching a trial skills class is different than teaching any other class, because this is a class where the students have the opportunity to come down and to participate and to have hands-on learning experiences where they actually do each and every one of the parts of a trial. So we are having fun in class and that makes them enjoy class but most importantly I think why the students enjoy the class is that I am trying to make them comfortable in a courtroom. I tell them in the very beginning, the first day of class, that in order to be a great trial lawyer you’ve got to be comfortable in the courtroom. So I tell them everything we’re going to do throughout this class is going to be geared toward making you as comfortable in the courtroom as you are in your own living room. The second part of being a great trial attorney in addition to feeling comfortable in the courtroom is being prepared. So my students often hear me tell them preparation, preparation, preparation. And when you put those two things together, preparation and comfort in the courtroom, they’re going to be great trial attorneys.
What is it about WMU-Cooley students that standout to you?
There are several things that stand out to me about Cooley students, but overall I find that they’re just absolutely incredible. The diversity of the students is just amazing to me. I have had students that are executives in large corporations. I have had students that are ex-teachers, ex-law enforcement officers. I even had one student who was only 18 years old. She had been home-schooled through high school and college and here she was in her third year of law school and she was only 18 years old. She was an incredible student.
But the diversity is amazing, and that’s one of the things that keeps me coming back to the classroom here at Cooley, as well as so many other things, because everything else about this school is so amazing – the other faculty members, the administration, this facility that we teach in. Cooley Law School is just incredible to me, and it starts with the students and it ends with the faculty and the administration. I just can’t imagine not being a part of this great school.
What advice would you like to give to law students?
The best advice that I can give to a law student is that I truly believe that you can accomplish anything that you set your mind to. It starts with setting goals, then working hard to achieve those goals, staying focused throughout the process, and then always being prepared. Like I always say preparation, preparation, preparation makes great lawyers.
What have you learned from your law students?
As much as I’ve heard students tell me that they’ve learned from and they enjoy my class, I recognize that it’s not just a one-way street. I have incredible students and I’ve learned a lot from them. They continue to amaze me how focused they are and how committed they are. They work hard; they come to class prepared – and it really helps me stay focused in seeing them and how hard they work. It makes me a better judge.
As a judge in Hillsborough County, you have seen the good and the bad times. What are the challenges to being a judge in this community?
I have found that there are many challenges to being a judge, but one of the most challenging things is being able to, what we call “stay within our lane.” We are sworn to interpret the law, not to change the law. Too many judges try to change the law if they don’t like it. I recognize that I have to follow the law whether I like it or not, whatever the result may be. If I want to change the law then I should have been a legislator, and at some point in my career maybe I’ll do that; where I can make the law. But while I’m a judge, I have to interpret the law and follow it wherever it takes me.
Do you have any interesting memories from your time as a judge?
In my time in the courtroom as a judge, two of the most interesting memories that I have is when I was a young judge. The first one was when I was a young judge in family law. I had two individuals who were in their 70s, had been married over 50 years and were getting a divorce. The only thing that they couldn’t settle between the two of them was the wife’s family spaghetti recipe. They were fighting over the recipe. The husband wanted a copy of the recipe, and that was the only thing that was standing in between them and their divorce. I can’t help but think that it must have been really good spaghetti for 50 years!
The other most interesting thing that happened was my time in juvenile where I had a non-jury trial and the defendant was accused of breaking into a home and stealing several items. The state attorney was doing a direct examination of the victim and she was going into a very specific description of a set of shoes that had been stolen from her house. I was wondering why they were going into such detail over these shoes – it was absolutely not necessary, until the attorney asked ‘have you seen those shoes since the day that they were stolen,’ and the victim, who was on the witness stand, pointed to the shoes that the defendant was wearing and said, ‘yes, he’s wearing them today.’ Needless to say, I found him guilty of the charges!