Throughout her career, Katherine Fernandez Rundle has been a leader in improving Miami-Dade County’s criminal justice system. “I am a strong believer in transformative change,” said Rundle, who has served as Miami-Dade state attorney since 1993. “Through the years, our office has become a role model in the handling of domestic violence cases, in juvenile justice diversion programs and in using civil citations for minor crimes.”
Today, Rundle leads about 300 lawyers and 700 support staff at the largest prosecutor’s office in Florida and the fourth largest in the U.S. Along with her work for criminal justice reform, Rundle has personally presented hundreds of murder and capital cases to the Miami-Dade County Grand Jury.
She also helped write the Florida Punishment Code, which allowed judges to issue stronger sentences for heinous crimes, and led a successful effort to pass a state constitutional amendment to give local governments the right to insure that gun sales at gun shows do not fall into the hands of criminals and juveniles.
While the felony caseload for the state attorney’s office has fallen in the past decade, each case is more complicated, according to Rundle. “We have one of the nation’s best criminal defense bars and public defender’s offices right here in Miami,” she said. “The stakes are always high, particularly with charges involving minimum mandatory sentences.”
But Rundle has focused much of her time on improving the way the justice system treats juvenile offenders. “Our office strives to create a safer place to live, work and raise our families,” said Rundle, who has twin sons Evan and Justin.
She helped create Miami-Dade’s Juvenile Assessment Center and the Truancy Intervention Program (TIP), which brought prosecutors and school administrators together in the effort to prevent crime and further a child’s education. “We want to identify risky behavior at an early stage and provide educational supportive services so young adults can have better opportunities in life,” she said.
Life in the Cuban Exile Community
Rundle’s father Carlos was an attorney in Cuba who was forced to leave for Miami in the mid-1950s. While studying at the University of Miami to pass the Florida Bar, he met Rundle’s mother Marie Lou, who had moved south from Chicago.
“As the oldest of four children, I watched my mother struggle while my father slowly built a law practice here,” she said. “When the Cuban exodus occurred after Fidel Castro’s takeover, my father would help other members of the exile community rebuild their lives. Seeing him provide that assistance inspired me to become a lawyer myself.”
Eventually, Carlos Fernandez became the first Cuban-American judge in Miami and possibly the USA, while Marie Lou earned a degree in early childhood education and went into teaching. In turn, Rundle earned a bachelor’s degree in education with a minor in political science in 1973 from the University of Miami.
The next year, Rundle was introduced to the University of Cambridge Law School while on a family vacation to England. She wound up earning a post-graduate degree in criminology and her law degree from Cambridge before returning home to Miami.
“I had been involved in international law issues, and my goal was to go to The Hague to help address human rights violations around the world,” she said. “Instead, my father suggested I spend the summer working for State Attorney Richard Gerstein. I felt very connected with the mission of the office, took a full-time job, and have stayed there since then.”
Dealing with Domestic Violence
In the State Attorney’s Office, Rundle found she could focus on human rights violations that occurred in families, rather than between nations. “At that time, domestic violence was seen as a private family matter. “I remember filing an attempted first-degree murder charge against a husband who shot at his wife,” she said. “The judge told me as he dismissed the case, ‘He missed, so why don’t you go over to family court.’ That was not an uncommon attitude in those days.”
With the urging of Janet Reno, who served as State Attorney from 1978 to 1993, Rundle quickly became a leader in changing attitudes in regard to the seriousness of domestic violence against women. “Along with isolating the abusers, you have to address a large number of social and economic issues,” she said. “We went out and did the research, and started building partnerships in the community.”
In 1986, she established Florida’s first Domestic Violence Prosecution Unit, which became a national role model.
In a Miami Herald tribute to Reno, who died November 7, Rundle said, “Janet helped redefine how we view crime. When she took the plight of crime victims seriously, helping lead the cause of victims’ rights in Florida, some thought she was interfering in the court process. When Janet pushed her concern for the child victims of sexual abuse, some felt such crimes were fiction. Today, we take these important advances for granted, locally and nationally.”
Along with her mentor, Rundle has worked hard to improve conditions for families and children. Reno originally opened the only Child Support Enforcement Office in Florida that was overseen by the prosecutor’s office. Rundle added to that legacy by helping pass legislation that added support orders to the Florida Crime Information Center (FCIC). This made every traffic stop in Florida an opportunity to provide needy children with their court-ordered support.
“Enforcing the collection of child support payments for custodial parents is a very important step for long-term prevention of violence,” she said. In the 11 months of the current federal fiscal year, Rundle’s office collected about $166 million in child support due. “We handle upwards of 75,000 support cases a year, and that’s a large percentage of our workload,” she said.
Rundle also took her proactive approach to crime prevention into some of Miami-Dade’s poorest neighborhoods, taking slumlords to court for serious housing code violations. “When you have families living in squalid, rodent-infested apartments behind a chain-link fence in a property without a playground, you foster a lifestyle that tolerates beating each other up and where hope can easily evaporate,” she said. “We have to clean up those conditions so these parents and kids can live safely and have a chance at a better life.”
Recognized for Leadership
During her 35-plus years in the state attorney’s office, Rundle has received dozens of awards and honors for her contributions to in the legal profession and the South Florida community. For example, she has been a member of the Cuban American Bar Association (CABA) since 1977 and served as its first female president in 1991-92.
In the past year alone, Rundle received CABA’s “Presidential Award,” the “Elected Official of the Year” Award from the National Association of Social Workers, Miami-Dade Chapter; and the “Women Making History Award” from the Florida Association of Women Lawyers, Miami-Dade Chapter. In 2015, she was appointed Ambassador to Human Rights First Campaign to Disrupt Business of Modern Slavery as a result of her successes in combatting human trafficking and was honored by The Women’s Fund, Miami-Dade County.
Now, Rundle is building on her office’s past accomplishments to continue transforming Miami-Dade justice system. “We need to provide effective support and assistance for criminals who have served their sentences to re-enter society,” she said. “We keep them isolated in prison, with very little in terms of rehabilitation services. Then we release them on probation and tell them to be good. We need to find a better model for those individuals, their families and our communities.”
South Florida Legal Guide 2017 Edition