His defense of a young mother charged with killing her toddler has transformed José Ángel Baez into one of the best-known lawyers in America.For eight years after he graduated from law school, however, the board that screens prospective attorneys in Florida would not let him practice law. The Florida Supreme Court agreed with the decision, issuing an order in 2000 that cataloged unpaid bills, extravagant spending and other "financial irresponsibility" up to that time. Justices reserved their strongest condemnation for his failure to stay current on support payments for his only child.
His overall behavior, they wrote, showed "a total lack of respect for the rights of others and a total lack of respect for the legal system, which is absolutely inconsistent with the character and fitness qualities required of those seeking to be afforded the highest position of trust and confidence recognized by our system of law."
He worked instead as a paralegal for the Miami-Dade public defender and then taught Internet research to lawyers and started four business ventures, including two bikini companies. Before Florida Bar officials admitted him in 2005, he had to demonstrate that he had rehabilitated himself.
Today, as lead defense attorney for Casey Anthony -- the Orange County woman charged with killing her 2-year-old daughter-- 40-year-old Baez has become the sort of instant celebrity monitored by TV, newspapers, tabloids and the Internet.
He is a Bar member in good standing, his office spokeswoman reminded the Orlando Sentinel in a prepared statement. She also questioned the motives behind the newspaper story.
"Based on your questions and actions," she wrote, "this profile you are writing has nothing to do with Jose Baez's representation of Casey Anthony and appears to be a sensationalist persecution of a Hispanic lawyer who has been targeted by a newspaper lucky to find itself at the center of a national story."
The Supreme Court order, which the Sentinel found in public records, shows that nearly a decade ago, he could not satisfy the character and fitness standards Florida requires of prospective lawyers.
It identifies Baez by his initials, J.A.B. -- standard procedure in cases in which prospective lawyers challenge their denial of a law license at the state's highest court. Using other public records and interviews, the Sentinel matched many details in the document to Baez, however.
For instance, the lawyer listed as representing J.A.B. was Manuel Alvarez, an attorney with the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office, where Baez worked at the time.
The office confirmed that Alvarez helped Baez with his Bar application. Supreme Court records show J.A.B.'s is the only case involving the Bar that Alvarez has handled in the state's highest court.
Alvarez would not comment, but Executive Assistant Public Defender Rory S. Stein said that Alvarez wrote a legal brief on behalf of Baez in 1998, the year after he graduated from law school. Stein called it "a friendly gesture" to a staff member who needed help with his lawyer application.
In an interview last year, Baez described his eight years out of law as a personal choice, saying he could earn more money in other fields. He would not be interviewed for this story but commented on the court order in the statement issued through Marti Mackenzie, his office spokeswoman:
"The ruling you claim that was made about a lawyer with the initials J.A.B. has nothing to do with Mr. Baez's current status as a member in good standing with The Florida Bar. Many people, including lawyers, have monetary misunderstandings, disputes and child support disagreements that have no effect on their ability to represent clients."
From Navy to law school
Born in Puerto Rico in 1969, Baez told reporters he grew up in the Bronx and South Florida with his mother, a single parent. He dropped out of Homestead High School in ninth grade.
He married at 17, became a father, earned a GED diploma and joined the Navy in 1986.
According to his résumé, Baez spent three years assigned to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Norfolk, Va., trained as an intelligence analyst with what he described as a "Cosmic Top Secret" security clearance.
He left active duty in May 1989 as a yeoman seaman, a rank associated with administrative duties, and then served in the U.S. Navy Reserve, according to the National Archives and Records Administration.
In the next six years, Baez divorced, attended Miami-Dade Community College and graduated from Florida State University. A black belt in tae kwon do, Baez competed with the karate, pistol and crime-scene team from FSU's chapter of Lambda Alpha Epsilon, a fraternity of criminology majors.
"We probably ranked first overall in every category in every national competition," said Ken Koehler, the fraternity's former sergeant-at-arms. "José was more or less the primary instructor. . . . We did academic testing as well, and he did pretty good with that, too."
After graduating in 1997 from St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami, Baez applied to become a lawyer. In April 1998, he was called before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, which screens prospective lawyers. The later Supreme Court order outlined how this review uncovered the debts and other problems that concerned the Bar examiners.
That order is the only public record of the review, which is designed to protect the public and safeguard the judicial system. The Bar examiners have responsibility for ensuring that all lawyer applicants meet Florida's requirements for character and fitness, education and technical competence, according to Supreme Court rules.
The process is not open to the public, except when a candidate who is turned down asks the Supreme Court to review the decision. The court identifies the rejected applicant only by his or her initials when its findings are released.
Court critical of finances
According to the Supreme Court summary of the case, the Board of Bar Examiners filed formal allegations against J.A.B. in September 1998. In addition to unpaid child support, a personal bankruptcy and default on a student loan, the investigators said he left out parts of his history, including that he wrote a bad check and entered a pretrial program to avoid conviction.
Investigators also found fault with J.A.B.'s participation in a foreign-studies program in summer 1995 and his leasing of a Mazda Miata in Miami -- unnecessary expenses when he owed money to others, they said.
After a formal hearing, the board found the allegations proven and recommended that he not be admitted to the Bar.
"Additionally, the Board found that J.A.B.'s misrepresentations and lack of candor in his answers to the specifications and during his formal hearing testimony were further grounds for disqualification," the Supreme Court wrote.
Many details in the order can be confirmed in public records for José Baez:
*Miami-Dade Circuit Court records show that Baez failed repeatedly to pay his $200-a-month child support after his 1993 divorce. The sum owed reached $12,000 by 2004. Asked recently about this, Baez said through his spokeswoman that he and his ex-wife have resolved their child-support issues. Like J.A.B., Baez's only child is a daughter.
*Baez declared bankruptcy in September 1990, the same month and year cited for J.A.B. The records on Baez are filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, where he lived during and after his service in the Navy.
*The Virginia Education Loan Authority filed liens against Baez for $4,336 in unpaid loans in 1995, the same year the Supreme Court says J.A.B defaulted on his student loan.
*Baez leased a Mazda Miata in 1998, just as J.A.B did. The Sentinel obtained a copy of his Progressive Express insurance card for the vehicle, which Baez had submitted to the Public Defender's Office in Miami. Files from the State Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles show the car was leased.
In April 1998 -- the same month that the Bar examiners held their investigative hearing into J.A.B.'s qualifications as a lawyer -- the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office reassigned José Ángel Baez to tasks that did not require a law degree.
Baez spent the next 16 months interviewing witnesses and investigating cases to compensate the office for its investment in his preparation to be a lawyer, records show. He resigned in September 1999.
The following year, in June 2000, the Supreme Court issued its findings in case No. SC95855, Florida Board of Bar Examiners RE: J.A.B.: "Accordingly, we approve the Board's recommendation that J.A.B. not be admitted to the Florida Bar at this time."
Baez tries bikini business
Turned down by the Bar, Baez started a series of businesses.
They included Bon Bon Bikinis and Brazilian-Bikinis.Com to sell bathing suits, corporate records show. He also applied for a real-estate license and created two companies selling computer know-how: LawStudentWebsites.Com and LawyerConcepts.
From 2000 to 2005, according to his spokeswoman, Baez worked for LexisNexis, the information company. In an interview last year, he said he taught lawyers and judges to research cases using the Internet and made twice as much as he could practicing law.
Records show that a court in Miami docked $550 a month from his LexisNexis paycheck in 2004 to pay child support to his first wife.
An applicant denied admission to the Bar can reapply after two years or other such period set by the Bar examiners. The application must include a "written statement describing the scope and character of the applicant's evidence of rehabilitation," according to Supreme Court rules.
The court requires them to produce "clear and convincing evidence of rehabilitation," such as strict compliance with judicial or administrative orders, assurances to "conduct one's self in an exemplary manner" and demonstrations of excellent character, good reputation for professional ability and "positive action" in their occupation, religion or community or civic service.
Baez launched two community-service ventures during his time away from the law.
In 2001, according to state records, Baez created a nonprofit group, the Miami Domestic Violence Project. It dissolved two years later. Mackenzie, Baez's office spokeswoman, said the project disbanded because another group with an almost identical purpose and name already existed.
In 2004, Baez created another nonprofit in Miami, Miracles for Children Foundation Corp., according to state records. It continued until Sept. 16, 2005.
The following week, Sept. 22, Baez was admitted to practice law. Because the admission process for lawyers is not public, there is no way to know what effect these nonprofit groups had on the Bar's action.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun