“When I leave I hope people will say I was fair and patient and followed the law."
On Aug. 21, 2005, in a town 12 miles west of Kabul, Afghanistan, something happened that would forever alter the course of history in Okaloosa County.
A roadside bomb planted by insurgents that day blew up an SUV carrying Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Patt Maney and four others.
While all survived the attack, the blast severely injured the general, known better to Okaloosa residents as County Judge T. Patterson Maney, who would spend nearly two years at Walter Reed U.S. Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., recovering from severe, head, neck and back injuries.
Maney returned triumphantly, if at first tentatively, to the bench in May 2007. In that same month this year he will set aside his gavel on the day before he reaches 70, the state mandated retirement age for judges.
“When I leave I hope people will say I was fair and patient and followed the law,” Maney said.
A new empathy
There’s no question that Maney’s career will be celebrated, and those looking back on it in its entirety will be astonished by the accomplishments, but the judge himself said he found a new empathy and a new purpose after Afghanistan.
“It was like so many hard experiences people have in that I turned out to be better for it,” he said. “It led me to have a greater depth in some areas. It really made me a better judge.”
Maney said his experience as a wounded warrior gave him a greater awareness of the plight of service members, and helped inspire him to create a Veteran’s Court in 2010 that since then has helped veterans dealing with issues related to their military service avoid getting caught up in the legal system.
Under the program, veterans are diverted to treatment programs or provided other alternatives that allow them to avoid jail time if they can stay on track. Now in its eighth year, a Veteran’s Court graduation is scheduled for March 16 with a senior official in the Department of Veteran Affairs scheduled to make a guest appearance.
“Okaloosa County is losing a huge, irreplaceable asset. We will never have another judge who is a retired general and who has been blown up, suffered a brain injury and therefore can identify with the parties who appear before him with PTSD,” Circuit Court Judge John Brown said of his colleague.
“No judge will be able to fill Judge Maney’s shoes in the Veteran’s Court he created,” Brown said. "A more forceful advocate for justice you will not find. A more humble servant you will not find. He is irreplaceable. I will miss him when he retires.”
By his own accounting, Maney took pains to let those in his courtroom know what to expect. As a county judge his cases are primarily misdemeanors, but depending on circumstances surrounding each case, penalties are not always consistent.
"I want the public to see and know in advance that you don't have to worry about going to jail on a first offense, but if you're here for your third time your fine might be more," he said.
Attorney Dixie Dan Powell said Maney's consistency made working in his courtroom less worrisome.
"He was and is a heroic public servant to both our country and to the bench," Powell said. "He always extremely fair to all sides. One thing you could always be assured of with Judge Maney was an absolutely fair trial."
Maney said veterans’ issues, jail overcrowding and mental health are key for him, and he is acutely aware that the three overlap, particularly from a judge’s perspective.
He sits on a mental health community advocacy organization that last year secured selection for Okaloosa County as one of three counties participating in a pilot program looking at ways to help the mentally ill rather than sending them to jail.
This year there is hope Florida lawmakers will vote to fund the pilot programs.
“With his retirement we will lose a huge advocate in the court system, but I feel certain Judge Maney will remain active as we move forward to improve the plight of the mentally ill,” said Okaloosa County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, who sits with Maney on the mental health task force.
A long legal career
When Maney steps down it will be nearly 29 years to the day that then-Gov. Robert Martinez phoned him on May 19, 1989, to tell him he had been appointed to succeed Mike Jones as Okaloosa County’s county judge.
On Jan. 31, 2016, Maney became the longest serving county or circuit judge in Florida’s First Judicial Circuit.
“It’s kind of interesting being the old guy when I still have so many questions,” he said.
There were 24 judges in the circuit when Maney was appointed. Today there are 36. In that same time period, the number of court administration personnel has grown from two to 97.
Fifteen years after Maney became a judge at age 41, Patricia Grinsted received an appointment of her own as an Okaloosa County judge.
“I’m going to miss him,” Grinsted said of Maney. “He has been an ardent supporter, colleague and good friend. I could always count on him.”
With Maney stepping down, a competition to replace him has begun. Notice went out this week to let potential candidates know they have until Feb. 28 to apply to the First Judicial Circuit Judicial Nominating Committee.
Gov. Rick Scott will choose the new judge from a list of finalists selected by the committee.
Maney received his law degree from the University of Louisville in 1974 and spent 15 years as a lawyer before receiving his judicial appointment. He recalled finding himself under intense media scrutiny twice, including once for his work on the estate of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. But he said no case was ever more important for him than another.
“The other cases that dealt with individuals and families were just as important to those people,” he said.
The landmark case of Maney’s career came in 1976 when, working with the NAACP, he and Destin Civil Rights attorney George Dean filed a complaint claiming “the Air Force engages in unlawful employment practices in that it discriminates against Negros because of their race.”
The lawsuit, filed by 20 African Americans, claimed Eglin Air Force Base was practicing systematic hiring discrimination. It listed 13 specific allegations of discrimination, including one that lists, known to base employment personnel as “the (N-word) lists” had been placed on base computers and worked to bypass the names of black candidates who came up as qualified for a particular position.
The case took seven years to litigate, but in the end Maney and the NAACP emerged victorious. A settlement was reached in which the Air Force agreed to pay $2 million in damages to blacks who had been unlawfully refused employment at Eglin. At the time, it was the largest settlement in a discrimination case brought against the federal government.
Maney said he’s torn by the thought of retirement.
“I knew what the state retirement age was when I took the job, so I’m not disappointed to leave, but if I had the choice I would stay a little longer,” he said.
He said he’s too young “to have the highlight of the day being toddling out to get the newspaper” and he’s excited to see what new doors will open for him upon retirement.
He said he and his wife, Carolyn, are looking forward to spending time with their two children and six grandchildren and traveling a little bit. He’s also chomping at the bit to delve deeper into the history of Okaloosa County, something that he said has fascinated him for years.
Maney secured the bell of the USS Okaloosa, a Haskell-class attack transport named after Okaloosa County during World War II from Foley, Alabama, and arranged for it to be given a place of honor at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport.
Maney also arranged with Fort Rucker in Alabama to have a helicopter shipped down and dedicated as an airport monument.
The UH-1 "Huey" helicopter was dedicated in honor of the late Michael J. Novosel Sr., who earned a Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics during the Vietnam War.
"We need to remember our history. There's a lot of local history," Maneyk said. "This community has so many veterans and so many people who have done as much for the country as most anywhere else in the country."