By Buddy Nevins
Portrait by Edward Linsmier
Circuit Judge John “Jay” Hurley slides out of the booth at Lester’s Diner after a frugal lunch of a bun-less hamburger and a side of chicken soup, when it happens again—a random stranger recognizes the courthouse celeb. A broad smile fixed above his trademark striped bowtie, Hurley leans down and shakes a middle-aged woman’s hand as she tells him how much she enjoys him on the Internet. “It happens all the time, ” Hurley says.
Hurley, 54, never expected the attention when he was appointed in 2008 as a judge in Broward’s first appearance court. Roughly 250 defendants accused of a crime appear before Hurley daily within hours of their arrest. He sets their bond, which could be a humdrum, boring job for a judge. But not for Hurley. Not since TV, Internet sites and the Sun-Sentinel realized they could all tap into that courthouse feed and broadcast it.
The judge was suddenly the star of his own reality show, something like 20 hours a week piped into peoples’ homes or their mobiles—more airtime than Judge Judy.
Today he quips. He jokes. He chides. He shakes his head in disgust. All at a breakneck pace to get through a long docket. A repeat offender is greeted with a hearty, “Good to see you again.” When the prosecutor reels off more than a dozen prior convictions of a robbery suspect, Hurley can hardly hide his revulsion, stage whispering into the mic, “Do I have to get a new pen to write all this?” Hurley is the grand marshal presiding over a parade of human frailties, misery and pure evil. Viewers clearly love it.
YouTube videos of Hurley are a hit. More than 709,000 have seen the clip from three years ago when he locked up a man for calling him a “cock.” Hate mail followed that incident, which is the dark side of fame. The courtroom rocked with laughter when a defendant who claimed he would be bedridden for “life” jumped out of his chair after being released by the judge. Raising his hands like a faith healer as the courtroom locked with laughter, Hurley quipped, “He’s been cured… Sir, you are supposed to wait until you get off camera until you jump up and do summersaults.” More than 143,000 watched it on YouTube.
“I get gift baskets, candy baskets [and] flowers delivered,” Hurley says. “I get people who come to the courthouse just to take their picture with me. I had people fly here from out of town, out of the country, who stop here to see live what I do.”
His Cuban-born wife, Maylin, is singularly unimpressed with his court show, he says. She was a cashier in the courthouse cafeteria when he first saw her, but there was a problem. “I couldn’t ask her out. She spoke no English,” recalls Hurley, who was still in private practice at the time and was divorced.
His solution was to buy her a gift certificate to English classes. Within a few months, she understood enough to accept when he asked her out for a date. They’ve been together for more than nine years and have a 3-year-old daughter.
A native of Fort Lauderdale, Hurley grew up near where the Galleria mall now sits. His father, a pilot for Delta Airlines, bought a waterfront lot for $800 when he was stationed in South Florida during World War II. Hurley went to Cardinal Gibbons High and Florida State University, where he roomed in the same fraternity as former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who eventually appointed him as judge in 2008.
Hurley landed as the full-time judge in the first appearance court and nothing has been the same for him.
A dreadlocked teen with a Caribbean accent charged with holding a pistol on an elderly lady and snatching her chain. $54,000 bond. The teen walked away from the camera muttering. All in a minute.
A 50-something-year-old nattily dressed businessman is charged with several counts of fraud. “It was just a poorly managed business. There was no intent [to defraud],” the defendant’s attorney says. “It looks like [fraud] to me,” Hurley fires back. He sets $45,000 bond. Two minutes.
The day continues. Held without bond. $10,000 bond. $20,000 bond. Released. On and on, it is a conveyer belt of crime and punishment.
Then a homeless man in a wheelchair is placed before the camera in the jail, charged with sleeping outside a convenience store. Hurley gently chides the defendant, warning him not to sleep on private property. Released after a no-contest plea with time served, deputies start wheeling the homeless man away, when he stops them. The homeless man turns, looking in the camera and says, “God bless you, Judge.”
And the show continues.
Originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue.