PONTE VEDRA, Fla. – Trailblazers are often shooting stars, making an impact before a life cut short. Such was the life of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Amy Karan, a trailblazer in the domestic violence and social justice arena of the court system. While taken by an aggressive form of Parkinson’s Disease at the age of 54 in 2013, her legacy on the bench as a visionary is one that members of the judiciary revere, creating an annual award in her honor.

Recognizing judges for their special contributions to judiciary and legal system, selection criteria for the Amy Karan Award includes a “judge who educates, works with, or otherwise encourages stakeholders in their public service, and is a visionary to improve the legal system in a manner consistent with the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration. The judge’s work should enhance the efficiency of service within the legal system, improve the development of new law, be constantly willing to innovate as the law requires.”

Palm Beach County Judge Sherri Collins joins Flagler County Judge Melissa Distler for a photo upon award announcement. Photo courtesy of J. Distler.

Nominated by Palm Beach County Judge Sherri L. Collins, Flagler County Judge Melissa Distler was presented with the 2023 Special Award and Tribute to Judge Amy Karan during the annual meeting of the Conference of County Court Judges of Florida in June 2023. Distler is the President-Elect of the Conference and was honored to receive the recognition from her peers.

Surrounded by family, Distler teared up during the presentation.

“It’s unbelievably special. It’s such an honor. So many people looked up to Amy Karan,” said Distler.

John Distler, Flagler County Judge Melissa Distler and daughter Mia Stens. Photo courtesy of J. Distler.

“I’ve had people from all over the state reach out to me and say I’ve lived up to her standards and even one of our local judges emailed me privately and was congratulating me on getting the award and said I knew Amy and you remind me a lot of her. It was just, it’s very heartwarming, and I’m honored that the conference would recognize my service in such a meaningful fashion.”

Since taking the bench in 2013, Flagler County Judge Melissa Distler has prioritized efficiency and education. Making strides inside and outside of the courtroom, Distler helps educate new and seasoned judges, while providing insight for future generations on the career opportunities within the law and justice system.

In-House Innovation

In the courthouse, Distler was instrumental in the development and implementation of the pre-trial release program.

“When I first came on the bench, essentially, I kept track of the people I saw at first appearance who I would have released through a pre-trial program if we had something like that. I went to the public safety coordinating council and just explained I had people sitting in custody five, eight, ten days on a petty theft charge who can’t post a $250 bond. If we had a pre-trial program, I would have released them to that. Eight days later the state offers them probation or time served. Jail population, that was before the new jail was built, was something in the forefront of our minds,” she said.

Crunching numbers and educating members of the safety coordinating council about the challenges and benefits, the Flagler County Sheriff and Flagler County Board of Commissioners created the position. In place for 10 years, Distler says the program is working.

“I just talked to our pre-trial coordinator today. It’s extremely helpful. I see things that could be fixed and corrected and I try to do my best to correct it,” she said.

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Muniz, Miami Dade County Judge Gordon Murray, Recipient of the Chief Justice Award, Flagler County Judge Melissa Distler, Recipient of the 2023 Amy Karan Award, Brevard County Judge David Silverman, Recipient of the Harvey Ford Award, Beverly Brown, Executive Director and Recipient of the Non-Judicial Award, Conference President Broward County Judge Ken Gottlieb. Photo courtesy J. Distler.

Education: Today’s Judges, Tomorrow’s Judiciary

Equally as important, the nomination acknowledged Distler’s strong support of education.

“I’m very involved in judicial education on multiple, pretty much every level you can be. I participate as an instructor and a track leader for Florida Judicial College, which occurs in January and March. I’m an instructor at the Traffic Adjudication Lab, which is specific, mostly dealing with DUI and traffic offenses. I’m the associate dean of the Advanced Judicial College, and I’ve also been very involved with education at the Conference levels,” explained Distler.

“I like being busy and I like serving. I really enjoy judicial education. That’s some of the most rewarding work that I do, meeting new judges and helping them understand their role, and be the best that they can, at it,” she said.

“When one of us looks bad, we all look bad. My role in that capacity is to give them as much knowledge as I can because I want them to do the best job that they can. It’s very rewarding to me.”

It’s not just the current judges reaping the benefits of Distler’s experience and support.

As the recent Chair of the Law Related Education Committee Distler worked with the appellate section of the Florida Bar to reinstate the statewide Moot Court Competition for high school students.

“It was previously run by the Florida Law Related Education Association, which actually dissolved right before COVID. When COVID happened, all of those competitions just kind of paused. The Mock Trial Competition has started up again, the year after COVID, through Florida Southern, but the Moot Court Competition had not. I worked with the Appellate Section and we petitioned the (Florida Bar) Board of Governors to reinstate the program. It’s first successful competition was in May of this year,” said Distler.

“The students got to argue in front of the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee. So that was super exciting for them. Now that’s back up and running again under the Florida Bar.”

Providing students with access to real working judges and attorneys through the program is a hands-on lesson that can’t be taught in a classroom.

“Programs like that are so fantastic for students because it gives them the opportunity kind of to practice and see what it’s like to be a lawyer. They can decide if it’s something they really want to do. The quality you see with these students, you’re talking students who spend hours, upon hours, upon hours on something that is voluntary. To be selected to be able to argue in front of a district court judge, is still quite an honor, and then the highest teams actually get to argue in front of the Florida Supreme Court,” continued Distler.

“It’s just one of those really memorable and unique experiences that high school students get to participate in. There have been many students who participated in mock trial or moot court who have become lawyers and turn around and want to give back and do that service for students again.”

Distler has worked in the past with the Matanzas High School students at the Law and Justice Academy and sees it as a good experience for all involved.

“Those of us who have been around for a while like seeing young minds interested in the law,” she said.