Time as Juror Left Impression on County Judge
Polk County Judge Robert G. Fegers


The Ledger
Posted October 15, 2011

 Photo by Michael Wilson, The Ledger

Judge FegersRobert G. Fegers never forgot the experience of being a juror.

It was a simple personal injury case back in the late 1980s. Nothing more than a fender-bender in the parking lot of a community college. But Fegers was impressed by how weighty a task was left up to the jury.

"They got to put their hearts into it, really focus, follow the law and make sure they understand the facts," he said. "It's just so important."

Fegers was a young lawyer then and didn't know if he could stand to do such a job on a daily basis.

"I certainly knew I was not ready to do that all the time," he said. "If you take it serious, as well you should, you recognize how important it is. I thought, I don't think that I want to be a judge yet.' "

But after spending years cultivating a legal career, Fegers became ready.

"It's just been a heck of a ride," he said.

Last year, Fegers, who served 10 years as city attorney for Eagle Lake, ran unopposed for a spot on the county bench. The position became vacant with the retirement of Polk County Judge Anne Kaylor.

The 54-year-old Winter Haven man is currently handling civil lawsuits ranging between $5,000 to $15,000 as well as landlord and tenant disputes.

FROM BUSINESS TO LAW

Fegers was born on Feb. 4, 1957, in Hollywood, Fla.

He was given last rites when he was two days old because he had to be taken to Miami for a blood transfusion.

"It came out very good for Bobby," said his father, R.J. Fegers. "He didn't have any complications after it was all over with."

Robert Fegers was one of four siblings who grew up in the Pembroke Pines area of Broward County.

He enjoyed collecting coins, reading Alfred Hitchcock short stories, and shooting basketball in a park down the street. He played guitar but switched to the trumpet by middle school.

The family spent holidays and summer weekends at a cottage on a lake in Highlands County.

R.J. Fegers would also take his children fishing and lobstering in the Dry Tortugas. He described his youngest son as bright and patient even as a child.

Although he worked as a lawyer, R.J. Fegers said he and his wife, Ruth, encouraged their children to take jobs that made them happy.

"I never tried to entice any of them to go into the law," he said. "I would try to guide them once I knew where they were going."

Robert Fegers said he loved mathematics and thought he would become a businessman.

He got his undergraduate degree in finance and pre-law from Florida State University in 1979. He decided to attend South Texas College of Law.

"I felt like if I was going to be in business that it would certainly be helpful to have some knowledge of the law," he said.

His best friend was going to join him a year later but died in a plane crash. It remains a painful memory.

"It's still tough," Fegers said. "It's something you learn to accept but never really get over. We did just about everything together growing up. He was like a brother."

While in law school, Fegers enjoyed the mock trials as well as studying different aspects of law.

"It just continued to make my appetite greater and greater to get more immersed in (pursuing law)," he said.

He got his law degree in 1983 and went straight to work for his father and his partner.

"They say you can go through law school, but you don't know anything about being a lawyer until you go out and practice," Fegers said. "I learned how to be a lawyer from my dad."

In 1988, the father-son team got a $2.3 million verdict in a libel case where one company falsely reported that a competitor filed for bankruptcy.

The next year, Fegers and his family moved to Winter Haven so he could become a law partner with Robert Antonello.

In addition to private practice work, Antonello served as city attorney for Winter Haven, and Fegers was an assistant city attorney. They worked together for 14 years.

"In all that time, I don't know that I've ever really heard him raise his voice in anger," Antonello said. "He could be very firm, but he thought before he spoke."

Antonello recalled Fegers would come to the office on weekends to get a jump on work.

Fegers said it can take him longer sometimes to complete tasks.

"I overly immerse myself in detail so sometimes I'm thorough to a fault," he said.

Fegers and Antonello were part of some large-scale, class-action lawsuits filed against Florida and other states that were violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by charging disabled people for handicap parking placards for their vehicles.

Steve Senn, a Lakeland lawyer who also worked on the cases, said Fegers noticed that the practice was wrong and felt strongly about trying to change it.

"He has always had a sense of adventure in the kind of cases that he would be willing to take on," Senn said.

Fegers said he looked forward the most to working on such cases.

"We, as lawyers, have an opportunity to do so much good," he said. "I've been very fortunate to be on the right side of a lot of those fights. I'm proud of that and thankful that I've been given the opportunities to help people out that really needed some help."

In 2005, Fegers began serving as a special master to help decide code enforcement cases. He credits the position as good training for being a judge.

"You get to stick your toe in the water without jumping in and see if this is something that you're really game for," Fegers said. "I felt more comfortable with my abilities and my understanding of what justice is. I felt confident that I could deliver justice."

JOYS IN LIFE

Fegers, who is recently divorced, has three adult daughters.

He said he enjoys spending time with them and using his free time to travel.

In December, he went on an expedition to Antarctica, and did some kayaking, hiking and camping. He admires early explorers of this vast, untouched scenery.

"These guys are just fascinating people," he said. "It was neat to see what they saw."

He has also been on a mission trip to Africa to put on a basketball clinic. Fegers didn't speak any of the native languages, but found simple hand gestures and some goodwill were all that was necessary to communicate.

"It was just a wonderful experience, teaching the Muslim children Bible stories and basketball ... The kids were terrific, well-behaved and courteous," he said. "It may be one of the poorest areas in the world, but they don't know any different. It's their life, and they're enjoying it."

 

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Updated 10/18/2011