Born June 13, 1960
Broward County Court Judge
1.5 million constituents
Appointed August 1997
Elected September 2000
As chairman of the Broward County Canvassing Board, Robert Lee oversaw the recounting of 2004 presidential election ballots there. Lee's approach to evaluating ballots became the standard for the state and after twelve long days of recounting, his team found 567 more votes for Al Gore than for George Bush. Video of Lee scrutinizing ballots was frequently used in national news coverage of the recount.
Interview with Robert Lee with for Out and Elected in the USA
Q: You believe that controversial cases can affect whether or not you get elected. What is that like?
A: We are non-partisan in Florida. Unlike in some states where judges actually run in partisan races, we are suppose to be non-political offices. We have 75 judges in Broward County. And we’re all county-wide, so, there’s no, ”Well, if you live in this part of the county, you’ve gotta run for this seat.” Since we’re all county-wide you can pick which judge to run against, and if there is a judge who makes a politically unpopular decision, even though we’re suppose to be non-partisan/non-political, someone can choose to run against that judge knowing that there may be a controversy. That’s why I say it’s a frustrating thing for judges because we’re not supposed to be political. We do know that sometimes you can make a decision that will impact the possibility of your being reelected. That’s just unfortunately the way it works. There is a mechanism within our state law to transfer a case to another county if the issue is of such a political nature that no judge believes they could be fair. But that happens very rarely.
Q: What has this experience been like for you?
A: It’s been a wonderful experience. But, the thing that really drove me to do this, I would say, was the march in Washington in ’93. It put the seed in my mind that we need people in public life that understand who gay people are, what we’re about, not to fear us. And then in Florida, specifically in the years subsequent to that, we had several challenges statewide. There was a lot of anti-gay legislation proposed and it was a very fearful climate. I realized that one of the problems we have in our state is just a lot of ignorance. People don’t understand who we are.
One of the more difficult parts for us as judges, and gay judges, is that we cannot make decisions based on the political will of the people. That’s wherein the difference lies between other elected officials. I have been faced with several gay issues as a judge. One of which I really ruled against my community because the law was very clear and I had to be neutral. That was perhaps about a year ago. I got a lot of bad press in the gay media. But there is just no way. I’m not gong to be a politician on the bench. That’s not who I am, and what I tell people is if we don’t like making decisions then we shouldn’t be judges.
Q: What happened?
We had a series of raids in our county against sex clubs. I was one of the three judges assigned to hear these cases. We consolidated them and heard them as a group of three judges, which is very unusual. There was argument made that in Florida you have a constitutional right to have sex in one of these bars. The issue at that time was not whether these people were guilty or not of a crime. We had hearings on it and we ruled that you do not. You know, you have the right to free speech, you have the right to freedom of religion. When you look at the freedoms that we have that are constitutionally protected, having sex in a bar is not one of them. To me it seemed fairly logical. But it caused a tremendous amount of bad publicity. First of all, some of the straight press coverage was interesting. One even came out to say that I, as a gay man, should know that this was like the core of our existence. Public sex. Group sex. And that therefore I should have understood. They couldn’t believe I said that it was not constitutionally protected! We did rule that it was constitutionally protected if it was in private. You know, if you were in your home, if you were in a hotel – but when you are in a business establishment, no. It’s not. It was somewhat surprising and actually a bit offensive. There was a stereotype that the gay community is all about as much sex and drugs and that kind of stuff; this part of our “lifestyle” that seems to become stereotyped. As it turned out, the charges were thrown out on other grounds.
I was actually stunned and I was not prepared personally for that attack. I got hate mail. It’s the only thing as a judge that I’ve gotten hate mail on. And I got threats on my answering machine from members of the gay community. It was very surprising to me when that happened.
I still think I’ve made a contribution and I think that all that was an anomaly. I think any gay judge is going to face an issue from time to time that’s going to put them at odds with their own community. But the bigger picture is that it’s better that we are there because it makes the judicial process more real.
For information on a touring exhibit version of Out and Elected in the USA: 1974-2004, contact Ron Schlittler at firstname.lastname@example.org.