This year, lawmakers gave Florida’s chief judges the power to set up a “Veterans Docket” for military members and veterans in minor legal trouble. Retired Army Reserve Brigadier General and Okaloosa County Judge T. Patt Maney advocated for the idea.
“We need to look at what the real problems are for the service members and the veterans and their families and to address those problems,” Maney said in an interview with WUSF. “And if they’re legal problems, we need to create a structure that will protect the public, save the public money and do justice to the veterans their families and the service members.”
Maney understands those veterans’ problems first-hand. His vehicle was blown up by improvised bomb when he was serving in Afghanistan in 2005. He spent almost two years in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. recovering from injuries including traumatic brain injury or TBI.
In an interview with Bobbie O’Brien, Judge Maney shares what it’s like living with TBI symptoms where you struggle to accomplish even the simplest task like using a self-service gasoline pump or remembering a word.
JUDGE T. PATT MANEY: Literally you’d get three or four or five words out and then have a 15 or 20 second pause while you tried to think of the next word. Those pregnant pauses make it hard for people who are listening also to keep track of the conversation. But, it’s very frustrating for the person who is speaking.
BOBBIE O’BRIEN: At that point were you thinking I’ll never be able to sit on the bench again?
MANEY: Well, the Army had already told me they were going to medically retire me and I was convinced at that point I was not going to be able to go back on the bench because I did not at that point have the capacity to do the job.
People want judges not only who are fair but judges who listen, who remember and then apply law to the facts they’ve heard in evidence and I couldn’t do that.
O’BRIEN: That had to have been a terrifying time for you?
MANEY: But it all turned out very well and because of that experience. I am fortunate enough to judge in community that has a large number of veterans and a large number of active duty people. We’re the home of Eglin Air Force Base. And so, I started noticing in court defendants coming through that demonstrated in court some of the symptoms that I had lived. And so I started paying more attention to them and asking them if they were veterans and asking them if they had deployed and asking them if they had been blown up.
And so, it just kind of grew from there and I decided for the concept of justice as well as patriotism, we just needed to find a way to help these wounded warriors get the kind of care that they needed and that our community needs because we’re going to pay the cost as a community if we don’t, if we don’t provide the treatment.
O’BRIEN: Some of those specifics (cases) that have come through your court, one that caught my eye – a young Marine who had done a couple of tours who go picked up for a bad check charge.
MANEY: In county court, we deal with the day-to-day ordinary people – neighbors, children, parents – and so you see a lot of the day-to-day offenses that people may bumble into. Just within my family, I traditionally ran the checkbook. When I got back from Afghanistan, I could write a check but I couldn’t do the simple arithmetic to balance a checkbook. I couldn’t do the addition and subtraction.
If you can’t subtract, if you can’t add, how can you be criminally liable for writing a bad check when the statute says you have to have intent. I started looking at all those kind of cases much more carefully.
OBRIEN: Have you sort of initiated your own Veterans Court in Okaloosa County?
MANEY: I have the authority as a judge to organize my docket the way I need to in order to get the people’s business done. But then I started looking at trying to get a statewide structure established and also so that I could and other judges, like-minded judges, could not just be limited to the cases that are immediately assigned to them but also other cases in the system that have the same problems.
OBRIEN: Could you describe for someone who might be more cynical, who might say ‘why should veterans have a separate court’ and are you holding them to a different measure because of their service?
MANEY: No. We’re not holding anybody to a different standard. What we’re doing and the reason you have a different docket is because the wrongful act is not intentionally caused and the wrongful act and the lack of intention is caused as result of military service.
I don’t think anybody thinks it’s just to incarcerate a veteran for doing something that they may not have understood they’re doing. It’s difficult because people who have brain injuries look normal, but the reality is their brain is not working like everyone else’s brain. And, we have in our jurisprudence history that you don’t hold somebody responsible when they don’t have the capacity to be responsible.