Someone hated and persecuted Florida 16th Circuit Chief Judge David Audlin, but in an odd twist of fate, his resignation over a Manhunt profile did more for marriage equality in Florida than he could have accomplished if he had heard the case himself.
Over breakfast at Island House Gay Hotel where he is often to be found relaxing with friends and visitors to Key West, David Audlin tells me that he has never really explained his resignation from the bench and that he is glad for this opportunity to reveal the truth.
After having worked in a lucrative “white glove” commercial litigation firm in California, and in the gritty Public Defender’s Office in Key West, and in the Attorney General’s Office in Tallahassee, Audlin returned to Key West in 1996 where, he says, “I hung out my shingle and made a freaking ton of money in a solo practice where I would help anyone who walked in the door. The lawyers up north remembered me, and the judges remembered me, so I got great referrals. Business was strong, but after awhile, I began to think it would be worthwhile to be a judge because there are so few liberal ones in Florida. My lawyer friends nominated me, and I ran unopposed twice. I was elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2012.”
Audlin says that because he was always out-and-proud, he was not going to go into the closet after becoming a judge. In Key West, he continued to socialize at gay establishments such as Island House where people knew his name and his partner of 17 years, Frank Alvarez.
Audlin says, “Frank was the most important part of the decision I made to resign my judgeship.”
In 2008, Judge Audlin ruled in favor of gay adoption rights, effectively dismantling Florida’s long-standing and unique state prohibition that had its roots in the Anita Bryant hysteria of the 1970s.
Audlin recalls, “I don’t think any of the other circuit court judges really wanted the case. It was a hot potato. I had given some thought as to whether I should take myself off the case. For the record, I formally disclosed that I was gay. But the best guidance I got was from the example and words of black Federal Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. who wrote that a judge should not recuse himself from a case just because he is a member of a minority group. He should recuse himself only if he has already made up his mind about a case before hearing it. If, as a gay judge, I have an open mind and come to my ruling based on the evidence I hear, I am acting appropriately.”
Because of his ruling on the gay adoption case, Equality Florida wanted to honor Audlin at a gala to be held in Key West. He accepted the offer and the event was publicized in South Florida newspapers. Shortly before the gala, Audlin received a phone call from an appellate judge on the west coast of Florida who was a member of the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee. That judge said that he had been informed that Audlin was planning to attend an event where funds would be solicited, making his presence a serious violation of judicial ethics.
Although Audlin did not agree with the judge’s warning, given that Equality Florida was not the kind of organization targeted by the prohibition, he canceled out of the event. He put the experience out of his mind, but recollected it when he got a call from the Judicial Qualifications Commission, (JQC) saying that they had received a complaint about a personal profile on a site called Manhunt.
Audlin says, “Someone had apparently tipped off the JQC that a gay judge had a profile on Manhunt. They asked me if it was my profile and if I had created it. I never denied it. That profile was not shocking or particularly sexy. It was funny more than anything else. There was some kind of self-appointed judicial watchdog blog out of Miami that was making a huge deal out of it, claiming that this was inappropriate. It seems this same source had sent the information to the Miami Herald and to the Key West Citizen. When the papers did not consider the tip to be newsworthy, the complainer brought it to the JQC. My lawyers asked the JQC why this profile on Manhunt was different from any other profile such as one that you’d see on Match.com or even ChristianMingle.com. The JQC was of the opinion that my Manhunt profile would somehow constitute behavior that would bring the judiciary into disrepute. It turns out that the judge who had warned me not to attend the Equality Florida gala was also a member of the JQC! Through my lawyers, I learned that the JQC had already made up its mind – without hearing any evidence – that my behavior was inexcusable. I began to feel pursued by a lynch mob. In fact, one of my lawyers called my situation a ‘genteel lynching.’”
Huntsman v. Heavilin attorney Bernadette Restivo feels that this attack on Audlin, coming concurrently with the filing of her marriage equality case was no coincidence. The JQC knew that the case would be decided by Judge Audlin who concurs with her suspicions, saying, “I think she’s right, given the warnings I had received and then the comments made by Republican-appointed members of the JQC.”
Because of those complaints to the JQC, Judge Audlin resigned from the bench and the marriage equality case went to the straight, conservative Monroe County Chief Circuit Judge Luis Garcia who issued his pro-marriage equality ruling on July 17, 2014. Audlin says he admires Garcia’s decision and thinks he himself would have reached the same conclusions.
Audlin recalls the anxiety he had deciding whether to fight the JQC or resign from the bench.
He says, “It was a miserable time for me. Look, I did the math. I talked it over with my partner Frank. I wanted our life back. Were these threats going to continue? Was I going to become the object of constant attacks, and would I always have to look over my shoulder whenever I was here having a drink at Island House or stuffing a dollar tip in a dancer’s shorts? I knew how to keep my personal and professional life separate, and I hadn’t even identified myself as a judge on that Manhunt profile. Part of my decision was personal but part of it was my desire to protect the court from an ongoing mess. Also, if they ruled against me it would set a very bad precedent for any gay judge coming after me. The JQC wanted a highly visible public spectacle. I wasn’t about to give them that kind of lynching. I also knew what that situation would do to the Huntsman v Heavilin case. Whoever was persecuting me was doing it to fight marriage equality.”
I had a final question for Audlin. Did the JQC have anything else on him? Had he ever been caught somewhere with his pants down? His answer was clear. “No, that's all they had. The reaction of the JQC was like something out of a French farce. Should I have been more discrete? I don't know. I'm a gay man who has been out since I was 20 years old. Never had an issue with it. Never wanted to hide it. Consider this: what if a female judge had listed her body type in an online profile? I put my dick size on that Manhunt profile, and I think that is what really upset the JQC. To them, it was shocking. I think that if the JQC had to focus on anything, they should have examined me to see if I had lied about the stats I put up. I hope that when people look back at this time, they will say, ‘You’re kidding! Judge Audlin got chased off the bench because of that?’ Being a judge was a chance for me to do something good. I hope I served people well. You know, some gay men live their lives in a very gay world, whereas some of us venture out into the straight world as openly gay men and this is the price we sometimes pay.”
(This profile of Judge Audlin is from a chapter - edited for SFGN - of the forthcoming book by Tony Adams “Ending Anita – How Two Key West Bartenders Won Gay Marriage In Florida.”)