Saturday, March 10, 2018

Judge Norman Roettger: One of a Kind Lucasvillian

 "Stormin'" (Without Mustache)

Known for his handlebar mustache and cowboy boots, his love of big game hunting and the handgun he occasionally carried under his robe, Roettger presided over some of South Florida's highest-profile cases. He was remembered as a sometimes acerbic judge dubbed 'Stormin' Norman.'”

Quote about Judge Norman Roettger

The following paragraph appeared in the Lucasville, Ohio Sesquicentennial (1819-1969) publication:

Norman (Sonny) Roettger, born in Lucasville. His father will be remembered as coach and principal at Valley High for many years between 1929-41. Norman J., attended local schools. He is now Deputy General Counsel for Housing and Urban Development in Washington. He is #2 man in the lineup of 272 attorneys. Mr. Roettger (Sonny) is one of a seven man team researching candidates for sub-cabinet positions in the Nixon administration. Through mid-January he was on duty on the 14th floor of the Hotel Pierre in Manhattan where the President-elect had his headquarters.”

Of course, this description piqued my interest, so I decided to search for more information about Norman Roettger. Boy, did I find some interesting print about Sonny. This man made quite a mark as a federal judge. This may be a story few here know. I have condensed my findings to better share this link to local Lucasville history with you.

Norman Roettger Jr.

Norman Charles (Sonny) Roettger Jr. (1930 – 2003) was an American lawyer and U.S. judge. He was born November 3, 1930, in Lucasville, Ohio. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Ohio State University in 1952.

Following graduation Roettger enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He served as a lieutenant, junior grade, and was stationed in Key West. After leaving active duty, he served in the Naval Reserve as a captain.

In 1958 Roettger graduated with his law degree from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Roettger was in private practice in Cincinnati, Ohio from 1958 to 1959 and in Fort Lauderdale, Florida from 1959 to 1969, where he joined the firm of Fleming, O'Brien & Fleming.

Roettger was acting general counsel and deputy general counsel for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1969–1971, before returning to private practice in Ft. Lauderdale from 1971 to 1972.

President Richard Nixon appointed Roettger to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida on April 13, 1972, to the seat vacated by Ted Cabot. Confirmed by the Senate on May 31, 1972, he received commission on June 2, 1972 and served as chief judge from 1991-1997. Roettger assumed senior status on June 17, 1997. His service terminated on July 26, 2003, due to death.

Roettger was noted for presiding over many cases involving drug trafficking and organized crime, including Mafia cases (for which he received death threats) and the trial of Yahweh Ben Yahweh. He also overturned the conviction of William H. Kelley, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of millionaire Charles Von Maxcy. The ruling was overturned on appeal and the sentence reinstated.

Roettger served on the court until he died from a heart attack on July 26, 2003 in Fort Lauderdale.

A Memorable Judge

Judge Roettger was known as “a fearless and independent jurist.” He prided himself on his harsh prison sentences, especially in organized crime and gang cases, but held prosecutors to a high standard, according to retired Judge Edward Davis, who succeeded Roettger as chief judge.

"He was the most independent judge I think I have ever known," said Davis. "I think he made a lot of people nervous on both sides."

"He had his own special place under the judicial sun," said defense attorney Kendall Coffey, who was the U.S. Attorney when Roettger was the district's chief judge. "He was known for being very independent-minded and unfailingly gracious, although if his sense of propriety or justice was offended, he could be very forceful and blunt," Coffey added.

"He was a tough sentencer, he took on tough cases, and he wasn't afraid to rule," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Kay, who had appeared in Roettger's courtroom since 1979.

"At heart he was somebody who had his moral compass and followed it no matter what comments people made about him," Teresa Van Vliet, a former federal prosecutor said.

In 1985, Roetther struck down a law requiring blue-collar workers to get fingerprinted, photographed and carry identification cards while working in the ritzy island town of Palm Beach. He ruled the 45-year-old law, lampooned in the comic strip Doonesbury, was unconstitutional. The comic strip likened the requirement to South Africa's apartheid-era pass laws.


The restrictive Palm Beach ordinance required workers including nightclub employees, janitors, retail sales clerks, gardeners, caddies, newspaper delivery boys older than 17, domestic servants, taxi drivers and charter boat operators to register with the police within 48 hours of accepting their jobs. The workers were fingerprinted and a background check was run. They were issued a photo identification card which they were required to carry at all times. They also paid a registration fee.

The judge also ruled against an attempt to disqualify an impeached former colleague, Alcee Hastings, from taking a seat in Congress, citing historical precedents. In 1988, the U.S. House of Representatives took up the case, and Hastings was impeached for bribery and perjury by a vote of 413–3. Hastings was then convicted in 1989 by the United States Senate, becoming the sixth federal judge in the history of the United States to be removed from office by the Senate.

By all accounts, Roettger was quite a character … a man with a sense of humor. Behind the humor, lawyers said, were strong principles and convictions. His acquaintances recall many of his “maverick” ways.

Prosecutor Van Vliet recalled that Roettger occasionally teased her by turning off his courtroom microphone.

"He mumbled under that big handlebar mustache, and he had the largest courtroom in Fort Lauderdale, with bad acoustics. We'd go in there, and he'd turn the microphone off and mumble, just to tease you."

Broward Circuit Judge Eileen O'Connor recalled his folksy expressions. He often signaled to a lawyer at sidebar that an argument was less than persuasive, saying, "That dog won't hunt."

As mentioned above, Roettger used to carry on the bench even though guns were not permitted in the federal courthouses. He also allowed his court reporter to carry.

"Norman was a classic judge, a classic gentleman and a good friend. He loved good fun, laughter, good food, the law [as he understood it] and great hunting," said U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar. "All of us are original, but Norman Roettger gave new meaning to the word `original.'"

The description of “original” evidently extended to his interior decorating. Roettger loved hunting big game and decorated his chambers with trophies including an elephant's foot. He also was well traveled. Even on the bench, Roettger tried cases throughout the district.

Criminal defense lawyer, David Markus, recalls the judge:

One of my first hearings was in front of Judge Roettger. I was a federal public defender and it was a change of plea. And the government had just started trying to get appellate waivers in agreements. I couldn't get this new prosecutor to take it out and I was very frustrated. My supervisor at the time told me to leave the waiver in the agreement and watch what happened when Roettger saw it.

Roettger BLASTED the prosecutor. He asked him whether he worked for the Department of Justice or the Department of INJustice. Why would they want the defendant to waive appeal. What if the judge made a mistake. Roettger took out a big sharpie and crossed it out in a very dramatic fashion and told the prosecutor to come sign the cross out. It was quite a show.”

Roettger canceled a trip to Liechtenstein in 1989 after learning it violated judicial rules to travel outside the country to take a sworn statement from a witness. A decade later, Roettger was among a handful of judges to face public criticism for attending expense-paid seminars sponsored by organizations with political agendas.

Also in the 1980s, Roettger spent three years under constant guard by federal marshals after an extortionist with organized crime connections and the moniker "Johnny Sideburns" put out a $300,000 contract on his life.

Johnny "Sideburns" Cerella was a Genovese crime family captain and convicted extortionist. He was a former acting capo of the Lucchese crime family. During the 1970s, in Broward County, Florida, Cerrella worked with soldier Vincent Romano in South Florida before becoming a “made man” in the Lucchese crime family

Roettger had sentenced Cerella to 16 years in prison for extorting valet businesses. Taxpayers paid for around-the-clock protection for the judge – the cost was estimated at $4 million.

In 2002, Roettger presided over the Key West trial of Cuban exile Ramon Saul Sanchez, who was accused of taking a speedboat into Cuba's coastal waters.

Sánchez and two other men had sped without authorization into Cuban territorial waters when six Cuban naval vessels appeared to be waiting for them, according to a U.S. Coast Guard commander. This created a practical and political problem for the U.S. government. Sanchez thumbed his nose at a presidential decree aimed at preventing an international incident.

Sanchez faced 10 years in prison for violating the 1996 proclamation by President Clinton that forbade anyone from leaving a "security zone," which encompasses most of Florida, with the intention of entering Cuban waters. Clinton issued the proclamation within a week after Cuban fighter planes shot down two planes belonging to Brothers to the Rescue, another exile group, killing four people.

Attorney Kendall Coffey represented Sanchez, and he said the judge was in prime form."It was classic Roettger," he said. "He dealt forceful rulings to both sides. He wasn't looking to land his rulings in the middle. There were rulings the government didn't like and rulings the defense didn't like. He wasn't a waffler."

Sanchez and his brother arrived in the United States from Cuba in 1967, but he waited until 2002 to apply for permanent residency. He lived in Miami as a parolee in exile, a status that allowed him to live in the country legally, work maintenance jobs and make a name as a vocal and well-respected activist.

In addition to his handyman work, was an active leader of the Democracy Movement, a group that leads flotillas of boats to the edge of Cuban territorial waters in the Florida Straits to protest against human rights abuses by the communist government.

"I left Cuba when I was 12 and I never saw my mother, grandmother or two brothers again," Sanchez told Fox News Latino.

Sanchez was the man behind the army of Little Havana demonstrators. The men, who belonged to a network of paramilitary groups, practiced armed combat in the underbrush, plotted violent overthrows of Fidel Castro and, in some cases, planted real bombs that did real damage.

In the early 1980's, Mr. Sanchez, under subpoena, refused to testify before a grand jury against one of the fiercest anti-Castro paramilitary groups, Omega 7. He served four and a half years in an Indiana prison and walked out a disciple of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As to why Sanchez waited so long years to apply for residency, he said he didn't want to lose the right to return to Cuba ever again.

Sanchez said that if he is deported he’ll likely be killed or arrested once in Cuba.

* A followup note – In March 2016 the U.S. government denied Sanchez's application for residency. The letter also asked that Sanchez leave the country.

Norman (Sonny) Roettger is certainly one of the more memorable Lucasville stories. He is survived by
his wife, Sharyn; daughter, Peggy Rhadigan; daughter, Virginia Jensen; two grandchildren, Leanna Jensen and John Jensen; and a brother, John Roettger. Perhaps local residents remember Norman, his father, or the rest of his family. Please feel free to comment and share to reveal more about the biography of the Roettgers.


“Should judges be armed?” Southern District of Florida Blog. February 23, 2018.

Ann W. O'Neill. “Funeral Today For `Original' Judge: Roettger Is Remembered As A Man Of Humor But Tough In The Courtroom. Sun Sentinel. July 29, 2003.

“Judge Roettger remembered for independence.” Associated Press. St. Petersburg Times. July 29, 2003

“Norman Charles Roettger Jr.” at the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, a public domain publication of the Federal Judicial Center.

Jeff Shields. “Cuban Exiles' Trial Begins. Sun Sentinel. May 07, 2002.
Rebekah Sager. “Renowned Cuban-American activist facing deportation after 49 years in exile.” Fox News. April 20, 2016.

Lizette Alvarez. “A Crusader Carves a Niche With Boy's Case.” The New York Times. April 19, 2000.

No comments: