Kenneth Ryskamp, longtime U.S. District Judge, dead at 85

Kenneth Ryskamp, a federal judge who presided over cases in the U.S. Southern District of Florida for more than three decades, has died. He was 85.

A post announcing Ryskamp’s death appeared early Thursday on the Southern District of Florida blog from Miami attorney David Oscar Markus, who described Ryskamp as “a nice man” and outlined his years of experience on the federal bench after nearly 30 years in private practice in Miami.

President Ronald Reagan nominated Ryskamp to the federal bench in 1986 and the U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination the same year.

In his 30 years on the bench, Ryskamp presided over the cases of some of South Florida’s most notorious cocaine cowboys, including Salvador “Sal” Magluta; handled civil rights suits and complaints against local police agencies; and most recently presided over the cases of former Palm Beach County Commissioner Tony Masilotti and Kevin McCarty, the husband of fallen ex-Commissioner Mary McCarty.

From 2000 to 2002, Ryskamp waged a war of wills with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta over the case of Nicholas Copertino, whom a jury convicted in the 1996 auto-crash deaths of five teenagers, including Dori Slosberg, the twin sister of state Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, and daughter of former Rep. Irv Slosberg. Copertino was driving his car at 90 mph west of Boca Raton when he lost control, killing the five teens, who had been crammed into the back seat.

Ryskamp granted defense attorney Robert Gershman’s quest for a new trial on Copertino’s behalf, ruling that Copertino deserved a new trial because Palm Beach County Assistant State Attorney Ellen Roberts made errors by showing the jury autopsy photos of the victims and calling Copertino “Mr. Hitler.” But the higher court twice reversed his decision.

Such exchanges led to his reputation for issuing strong and sometimes controversial opinions on his cases. But attorneys who spent years arguing cases in his courtroom, like Richard Lubin, remembered Ryskamp as a thoughtful, passionate jurist who cared about every litigant who stood before him.

“He was just a wonderful human being,” longtime defense attorney Lubin said of Ryskamp Thursday. “He looked at every case for what it was, and not as a number. I’m sad to hear he’s gone.”

Ryskamp in the early 1990s seemed poised for a spot on the 1tth Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Then-President George H.W. Bush twice nominated Ryskamp to the appellate court, but his nomination was defeated both times after senators, including future Vice President Joe Biden and longtime Florida Sen. Bob Graham, raised questions about his sensitivity to minority groups and his membership at a private Coral Gables country club rumored to discriminate against Jews, blacks and Cubans.

Assistant Federal Public Defender Lori Barrist was one of the people who spoke out in support of him during that time. She spent two years at the start of her career assigned to Ryskamp’s division in the 1980s, and frequently appeared in his courtroom again when she was transferred to West Palm Beach years after Ryskamp’s move to the area.

“We didn’t talk about it, but I’m sure it bothered him,” Barrist said of the discrimination allegations. “I can say, as a Jewish woman, representing mostly African American and Latin defendants, that I never felt Judge Ryskamp was prejudiced. He wasn’t that way at all. He cared about everyone who came before him.”

Barrist and other federal public defenders affectionately referred to Ryskamp among themselves as “Stretch” — a nickname she thinks he knew about but never acknowledged. A member of the University of Miami basketball team when he was in college in the 1950s, Ryskamp towered over most of his colleagues when standing, and Barrist estimates he was about 6 feet 6 inches tall.

Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., Ryskamp attended Calvin College for his undergraduate studies before going to law school at the University of Miami, where he graduated in 1956. For nearly three years after that, Ryskamp was a law clerk for Judge Mallory H. Horton of the Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal. He went into private practice in 1959.

Ryskamp was a federal judge and eventually a senior judge until his retirement a year ago.

The local chapter of the Federal Bar Association gives an award to a local jurist each year in Ryskamp’s honor, and Lubin said Ryskamp always made a point to attend the awards luncheon, even after he retired.

Calvin College also awards an annual scholarship on his behalf to political science and pre-law majors. A description of the scholarship on the college’s website says the scholarship’s goal is “to encourage Christians to become a beneficial presence in the practice of law.”

After he retired, Barrist and others kept in touch with Ryskamp, and she in particular made a point to meet him periodically for lunch and dinner. Ryskamp had hinted at heart problems during their last few outings, Barrist said, and had declined her last invitation because he wasn’t feeling well.

She last saw him at a bar luncheon last week, where she said he was experiencing visible physical discomfort and left early. She caught him on his way out, promised to text him later, and never saw him again after that.

As news spread of his death, Barrist said federal prosecutors and public defenders alike were devastated and shared their memories of him when they saw one another in court. Barrist told stories of how the judge was known to fastidiously scrub stains from the carpeted floor of his chambers on his hands and knees and had a sometimes self-deprecating sense of humor.

“I remember when he retired I somehow wound up with a poster of him in my office,” Barrist recalled. “I took a picture of it and texted it to him. He sent me a message back saying I needed better artwork.”

Ryskamp was preceded in death by his wife, Karyl Sonia Ryskamp and leaves behind a daughter and two granddaughters.

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