Marathon attorney David Manz, owner of the Manz Law Firm, is the 2023 recipient of the Florida Bar Pro Bono Award for Florida’s 16th judicial circuit. CONTRIBUTED

“I’ve practiced for nearly 40 years, and I’ve been really successful. This transcends all that.”

That’s what local attorney David Manz told the Keys Weekly when asked about his work with Monroe County’s Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program, a service that aids abused, abandoned and neglected children in Florida’s dependency systems.

Though Manz is the owner and partner at the Manz Law Firm in Marathon, he doesn’t take a dime for his work with these children. And on Jan. 26, the Florida Bar took notice, honoring him with the 2023 Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Service Award for Florida’s 16th judicial circuit. Established in 1981, the award is intended to encourage lawyers to volunteer free legal services by recognizing those who make public service commitments.

Manz’s community involvement doesn’t end with his GAL service – he also currently serves on the Human Services Advisory Board in Monroe County. With volunteer members appointed by the Monroe County Commission, the board decides how to allot roughly $2 million each year to community-based nonprofits offering health and social services to Keys citizens.

In light of the recent honor, we sat down with Manz to discuss what exactly he does with the GAL program, and why he gladly offers hundreds of hours in service to Monroe County’s most vulnerable young residents.

For those who aren’t familiar, what is the Guardian ad Litem program, and what is your role? The Guardian ad Litem program has various volunteer guardians who get appointed to represent abused, abandoned and neglected children. They’re used in various cases and appointed automatically in severe criminal cases with a child victim. Most of my cases are capital sexual battery cases, which means that the child is less than 12 and there’s an automatic 25-year sentence. These children are petrified, and they don’t want to relive the incident. I help walk them through the process in court proceedings – here’s what’s going to be asked, why you’re the most important person in the process, that sort of thing. 

How did you get involved with this? About 20 years ago, I knew (Guardian ad Litem director) Alexsa Leto as an attorney. There were guardians, but there wasn’t an attorney for the program or anybody there to help with legal advice. I said to myself, “Wow. There’s an incredible need here.” It’s bad enough when somebody in a divorce case is getting crushed by the other side because they can’t afford an attorney, but when it’s involving children, it’s taken to a whole other level. I volunteered to start doing this regularly because there was a paucity of attorneys, and I think I’ve got 20 cases now. 

Which individual cases were the most impactful or memorable for you? There was a case several years ago where I acted as an attorney for four siblings who were all in a home in Big Pine when the mother stabbed and killed the dad. The children went into foster care and there was obviously PTSD and severe psychological issues as a result of this trauma. I was able to do a great deal of research and determine that there were issues with their extended family in Michigan, where they were about to go, involving relatives who’d been imprisoned for battery. The children ended up getting adopted here in Florida and are now thriving. I got to see the turnaround from absolute tragedy and trauma to these kids thriving.

And then in another case, I met with three children in California who were going to have their deposition taken that day, and they were very concerned about it. As I was leaving, one of the little kids said, “Hey, are you gonna come back and talk to us tomorrow?” It was really endearing because it was very heartfelt with no guard up. It just showed that children need care and protection in these vulnerable moments.

What motivates you to keep going with your pro bono work? The business of law is one thing, but lawyers have an opportunity to transcend being a businessman. As somebody said at the Florida Bar ceremony the other day, they can help repair the tears in our community.   

There’s a quote I live by with my Guardian ad Litem work from Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” “It is not the responsibility of knights errant to discover whether the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed … suffer this distress for their vices, or for their virtues: the knight’s sole responsibility is to (help) them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings.”

What does it mean to you to be recognized in this way? I’ve practiced for nearly 40 years, and I’ve been really successful. This transcends that, because it gives an opportunity for the vulnerable, the disadvantaged, the needy and the poor to be on equal footing. As far as the recognition, it’s important to me because now society and the Supreme Court recognize the importance of the work, rather than it being the dark or where nobody sees it.

Obviously, nobody can do it alone. Is there anyone you’d like to thank? I’d like to thank Alexsa. She’s a tireless advocate for children, she’s passionate, she’s committed, and she’s the one who actually appoints me to these cases, so she’s critical.

Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.