Retired Broward Circuit Judge Stanton Kaplan, who was known as a tough but exceptionally fair judge, died Saturday at his Plantation home. He was 76.
Though he ran a tight ship and insisted on proper courtroom decorum, he loved slapstick humor and collected memorabilia from The Three Stooges — including a clock that delivered the "nyuk, nyuk, nyuk" sound — that he kept in his chambers.
Judge Kaplan used a wheelchair from the age of 14 after being struck by polio. He downplayed the challenges he faced and said he preferred to advocate for people with disabilities by proving that all obstacles could be overcome.
"My disability was actually a great motivation to me. Without it, I never would have gone to law school or become a judge," he told the Sun Sentinel in 2005.
After graduating from the University of Miami law school, his first job was in a Fort Lauderdale office with a restroom he couldn't use so he would roll his wheelchair across the street to use the accessible restroom at the County Courthouse.
"There were no ramps so I'd put the front wheels on the curb, grab the parking meter and haul myself up on the curb. I did that three times a day for four years until my mother suggested I run for election to be a judge so I'd be working in the building," Judge Kaplan said.
He was elected a Small Claims judge in 1966, moved to County Court in 1973 and Circuit Court in 1977. He retired at the end of 2008 but served as a senior judge, as needed, until a couple of years ago.
For his retirement party, Judge Kaplan favored a roast where some of the county's top lawyers gently teased him in front of hundreds of his friends.
His legal decisions ranged from ordering that a litigant was entitled to a two-cent refund in sales tax to sentencing 10 people to the death penalty.
Defense attorneys said he became more compassionate in his last two decades on the bench but retained a razor-sharp method of detecting when defendants were lying to him. Lawyers routinely warned their clients to remain silent or tell him the truth because he was sympathetic to people's weaknesses but couldn't abide deception.
Among his closest friends were husband and wife Broward Circuit Judge Marc Gold and civil rights lawyer, Barbara Heyer.
"He was an amazing judge and an amazing man," said Heyer. "He was scrupulously fair. Being in trial in front of him was always interesting and you always learned something."
Judge Kaplan was delighted when one of his three sons, Michael, was elected a Broward Circuit judge in 2002.
Judge Kaplan was married three times: to Marcia, the mother of his children, Michael, Steve and Sander; to Judy, whom he met after she was a juror in his courtroom; and finally to Sue, who he married in 1999 after Judy died of cancer.
The family will receive friends from 5 to 6 p.m. Wednesday and a memorial service will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Fred Hunter's Funeral Home, 2401 S. University Drive, Davie. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Hospice of Gold Coast, 2101 W. Commercial Blvd, Suite 4500, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33309 or the Mailman Segal Center for Human Development at Nova Southeastern University, 3301 College Ave., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33314.
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