Twelfth Judicial Circuit Judge Rick De Furia looks different today. Although several weeks still remain before he officially retires, he looks the part as he walks about the Sarasota County Courthouse. He doesn’t have court this afternoon, and he’s forgone his typical robe-and-tie wardrobe in favor of a more casual look. He’s more aptly dressed for one of his daily strolls or bike rides on Longboat Key, where he lives, and he is wearing light blue Converse Chuck Taylors, navy shorts and a light-blue, short-sleeved button-down shirt.
De Furia scans his identification card and unlocks the judicial chambers door that leads to his office in the courthouse. As he makes his way down the hall, his coworkers are quick to tease him about his unusual courtroom attire.
“Oh, so you do have legs!” says one voice from within a room.
“Yeah, you’ve had your show,” he responds with a laugh, still walking. “Now, that’ll be $5.”
Inside his ninth-floor office, De Furia has already begun the tedious process of packing his belongings.
Stacks of boxes and loose decorations surround his desk, and he apologizes for the clutter.
“I’ve always been the sentimental type,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this stuff. I can’t bring myself to throw any of it away.”
Even with half of his things already in boxes, the walls and shelves of his office are overflowing with memorabilia and keepsakes accumulated throughout his career. Photos of him with Cary Grant, George H.W. Bush and other notable public figures hang on the wall; a 7-inch record, titled “Peter Ponsil Lost His Tonsil,” is framed near the door — a nod to an inside joke between him and his former judicial campaign manager; and he’s uncovered countless other forgotten gems in the process, including a hula-girl clock, complete with hip-swaying action.
De Furia’s office décor is as varied and fascinating as his career. In law, he has worked as a prosecutor, public defender and county and circuit judge. He’s also spent time as a news anchor, television commentator and a professional actor, appearing in soap operas, commercials, television shows and movies, including “Presumed Innocent,” in which he exchanged lines with Harrison Ford.
Different as his endeavors might seem, De Furia sees a common thread among them.
“Being a good actor is more than just memorizing lines,” he says. “You need to be a good listener, and you need to be alive in the moment. The most important thing for a judge is to be prepared and be a good listener. I try to be compassionate and give everyone in the courtroom the respect they deserve.”
Getting into character
Born in the small town of Little Falls, N.J., De Furia graduated in 1968 from Ithaca College in New York before attending Stetson Law School in St. Petersburg. One year into law school, he left to serve in the Army Reserves. Afterward, he joined a private jet company as a public relations specialist and he met many celebrities and dignitaries on the job.
After completing law school, he began working in 1973 as a state attorney, then as an associate for a local law firm, before deciding to run against an incumbent candidate for county judge.
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” says De Furia. “We knocked on probably 24,000 doors, and we ran a good campaign and ended up winning.”
After six years as a county judge, De Furia decided to pursue a passion he’d enjoyed since high school: acting. He completed a two-year program at the FSU Asolo Conservatory, and he was able to find work in New York as a freelancer while remaining a senior judge in Florida. During this time, he also worked as a television commentator and news anchor for SNN, before returning to the bench full time in 2002, as a circuit judge.
Change of pace
Even a brief conversation with De Furia reveals his charm and quick-witted sense of humor. His penchant for sarcasm and practical jokes is evident in his interactions with his colleagues, who recall times he’s planted stuffed birds, exercise bikes and other absurdities in their offices, and he’s always been a key member of the roast committee for retiring judges. This kind of optimism is important to De Furia, who says his day-to-day duties as a judge can take an emotional toll.
“The job is very stressful, and it’s emotionally draining,” says De Furia. “That’s not something most people would think about, but there are times at night when I struggle with, ‘Did I make the right choice?’ There are still a few cases that weigh on my mind.”
But the job has also provided him with some of the greatest rewards, including the chance to use his power to help rehabilitate young people and those struggling with addiction, causes he says he’s especially interested in. If he could change one thing about the judicial system, it would be to place more emphasis on rehabilitation for nonviolent drug-possession offenders.
De Furia says he’ll miss his coworkers and serving in a job he finds especially important, but he’s looking forward to new ventures. At the age of 66, he says his retirement is not a time to slow down, but an opportunity to devote himself to his other passions, whether that means television, acting or, as he puts it, “something fun.”
“I’ve got to find another job,” he says. “I’m not good at sitting around. Being involved in something upbeat and positive will be a nice change of pace.”
His most immediate concern: being on the other end of the retirement roast.
“They asked for my acting reel,” he says. “They’ll have plenty to work with.”
Contact Nick Friedman at [email protected]
ON THE SET
During the filming of the movie, “Presumed Innocent,” Rick De Furia had the opportunity to work with Harrison Ford — an experience he says he won’t soon forget.
“It was incredible,” says De Furia. “I was sitting in the dressing room, and he walks in and asks me to run lines with him. He’d changed some of the dialogue and wanted to go over it with me. Afterward, I didn’t know if I should stick to the script or go with the changes, so I asked someone. They just told me, ‘You just do whatever Mr. Ford says.’”
Fellow judges share their favorite memories of working with Judge Rick De Furia:
County Judge Phyllis Galen: “When I first met Rick, I was a prosecutor and he was a senior judge. It was an armed robbery case in which the defendant was a cross dresser, and there were some sensitivity issues to the case. He always showed everyone the utmost respect, and his actions were the epitome of how a judge should treat everyone. It made a marked impression on me as I became a judge.
“He loves to play tricks on people, so one Halloween, I wanted to get him back. I bought a set of mangled fake teeth from a costume shop and put them in a glass of water on his bench. He went so far as to pull the security footage to find out who had done it, and he had the bailiffs serve me with a fake arrest warrant.”
12th Judicial Circuit Judge Charles Williams: “He has a unique personality and a great sense of humor. When he was up for election for the position he’s in now, he was running unopposed. We played a joke on him to make it look like someone had registered to run against him on the last possible day. His face turned white, but he didn’t break stride; he just started to gear up for the campaign. We couldn’t bear to keep the joke going.”