The Obit For Joe Eaton

Judge integrated public schools

Former federal and state Judge Joe O. Eaton, a civil rights advocate and respected jurist, has died at age 88.

By SUSANNAH A. NESMITH

As a state senator, Joe O. Eaton thought about one day running for governor. His friends and colleagues say he could have been president -- but he was ahead of his time on civil rights issues.

He spent the next half of his professional life as a judge -- both state circuit and U.S. district -- overseeing cases ranging from the desegregation of schools in the 1950s to the prosecution of the cocaine cowboys in the '80s.

Eaton, 88, died in his sleep Sunday.

''Eaton could have been governor of the state, but back then he was in favor of the civil rights laws, so he was a little bit too liberal for those times,'' said former Gov. Bob Martinez, who practiced in front of Eaton as a young federal prosecutor.

Eaton's daughter, Janet Eaton Sherr, remembered those times.

''My father was contemplating running for governor. The consensus was that he was too liberal too early,'' she said. ``Things have changed, haven't they? We have a black presidential candidate, thanks to people like my dad.''

Seymour Gelber, a former judge and Miami Beach mayor, thinks Eaton could have gone even further if he had stayed in politics.

''I thought he could have been president,'' Gelber said. Gelber worked as Eaton's legislative aide in the state Senate from 1956 to 1959.

''Joe was opposed to the segregation policies at that time, and spoke out against them and voted against them, which was a pretty significant thing,'' Gelber recalled. ``There weren't too many who opposed segregation at that time. This was back in the '50s.''

But Gelber wasn't so sure that Eaton's political leanings pushed him out of politics so much as his love of the law pulled him into the judiciary.

''I was up there and we talked about it often,'' Gelber said. ``He just never saw politics as his future. He was more interested in being a judge.''

Eaton was appointed to the state circuit bench in 1959 and President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the federal bench in 1967.

SCHOOLS CASES

As a U.S. district judge, Eaton was still involved in civil rights issues, ordering the desegregation of Palm Beach County schools in 1973 and presiding over the consent decree that integrated schools in Broward.

Like just about every judge in Miami in the 1980s -- the cocaine cowboy days -- Eaton handled his share of criminal cases.

When a defendant took a plea deal in the middle of a trial in 1985, instead of dismissing the jury, Eaton gave a sermon-like talk on crime.

''Who wants to tell me why there's so much coke coming into this country?'' he asked the silent jurors, according to a Miami Herald story about the case.

He didn't wait for an answer. ''It's demand,'' he said. ``It's because the American people want it so bad. We have become corrupt in America.''

He went on to tell the jurors that he kept himself up-to-date on civil law, but that 90 percent of his caseload involved cocaine charges at that point.

``After all these years, I'm just a coke man now.''

He went on to assure the jurors that just because they'd seen a plea bargain, that didn't mean judges were coddling criminals.

''More people are getting electrocuted than ever before in the history of this country,'' he said. ``The same guy that says we mollycoddle people ought to come to my house and sit on my porch and see the law enforcement people on surveillance there to protect my family against the people that I supposedly mollycoddle.''

WELL-RESPECTED

Lawyers who practiced in front of Eaton remember him as firm, but fair.

''Here was a person who fell in love with the law,'' said veteran attorney Burton Young. ``He lived it, he breathed it. And he knew how to temper the law with mercy. Unfortunately, that's very rare. He was just a great man.''

Martinez remembered Eaton's holding young prosecutors accountable.

''He expected very high standards from us,'' he said. ``It was always in a very firm but affectionate way.''

Said attorney Joe Klock: ``No. 1, he was extremely smart. And he was extremely politically savvy. He was one of these judges who was a combination of knowledgeable of the law, with a good feel for how the community would react to something.''

Eaton moved to senior judge status in 1985, carrying a partial case load for several years until his health forced him into retirement.

Born on a watermelon seed farm in Monticello, Fla., Eaton was also a beloved family man, married for 66 years to Patricia MacVicar Eaton, who ran away from college at Florida State to elope with him.

Shortly after getting married, Eaton went to war, serving as a major in the Air Force. He flew the Martin B-26 Marauder on 51 missions in Europe. His son, Joel, was born during World War II. Father and son met when Joel was 2 years old.

When Eaton was in his early 80s, he wrote and self-published a book about his war experiences called Tiger Stripe.

His children remember his sense of humor and his willingness to let them find their own way. ''He believed that we should learn our own lessons in life,'' daughter Janet said. ``He'd never tell me which road to choose but would tell me what I would find on each road.

''During his invalid years, when he should have been miserable, he never complained,'' she went on. ``He smiled and told his jokes. His outlook on life was just wonderful.''

In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Joe Eaton is survived by daughter Julie MacVicar.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at United Methodist Church of South Miami, 6565 Red Rd. followed by a private interment. The family will receive guests at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the home of Joel and Mary Eaton, 9881 SW 103rd St.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests donations be made to Plan USA (Childreach), 155 Palm Way, Warwick, RI 02886 or the United Methodist Church of South Miami, 6565 Red Rd., Miami, FL 33143.