Judge Tarlika Nunez-Navarro’s first name means “little tree” in Hindu.
Judge Nunez-Navarro is deeply rooted in the law and her compassion for everyday people. After graduating from St. Thomas University’s College of Law, she moved to Santa Marta, a beach city which is part of Colombia’s Caribbean region.
“I took a break after law school, and I studied their language and their legal system,” said Nunez-Navarro, whose father, David, was born in Bogota, Colombia. “I wanted to maybe do international law. I spent a year there, and I embraced the culture.
“It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Learning to live that (island-type) pace was something I’ll never forget.”
Nunez-Navarro, who earned her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami, took another break – this time for three years – before she started at STU’s College of Law.
“My parents felt it would be important for me to work in the real world before I started law school,” Nunez-Navarro said. “They wanted me to learn to value money and put myself through law school.”
During that three-year gap, one of the things Nunez-Navarro did was travel “all around South and Central America,” teaching English to people living in small villages.
She would make enough money from those lessons to move on to the next town.
Nunez-Navarro certainly did not get rich doing this, but making huge amounts of money was not the point.
She learned that lesson from her father, who studied pathology and internal medicine in London. He did his residency at the University of Miami before deciding he wanted to be a small-town doctor and general practitioner.
Nunez-Navarro’s parents, David and Lynda Paul, moved the family to Lake Placid, Florida, where David started his practice. He would often take Tarlika on his house calls, teaching her tenacity and work ethic.
“I remember the black bag he would carry,” Nunez-Navarro said of her father, who died in 2010. “We would go into the homes of everyone in the community.
“The little old ladies would bake him cookies or cook soup. He lived to serve his community, and, if his patients couldn’t afford to pay him, they would make him tortillas in exchange.”
This confused Nunez-Navarro at the time.
“I remember asking my father, ‘How are you ever going to make money? All you do is take food,’” Nunez-Navarro said.
“My dad taught me that it wasn’t about making money. It’s about loving what you do. It’s about public service. My father said I would understand it one day.”
He was right, of course.
Among the many ways that Nunez-Navarro gives back these days is teaching at Florida A&M’s Law School in Orlando.
Nunez-Navarro also wrote a children’s book called Believe. She wrote it with lawyer Ricky Patel, a close friend she met at STU’s College of Law.
As part of her mission, Nunez-Navarro has gone to numerous elementary and middle schools to read to children. When she tells them she is a judge, she gets incredulous looks. Even after she shows them her robe, they often still do not believe her, and that is why she authored the book with Patel.
“He’s like my long, lost brother,” Nunez-Navarro said of Patel. “We did mock trials together at St. Thomas. We were trial partners and won a couple of competitions together.
“With the book, I wanted to inspire all children. But I really wanted to encourage young, minority children to see potential in themselves, regardless of what they look like.”
Judge Nunez-Navarro is certainly living up to her potential.
After graduating from STU in 2010 and returning from her year in Colombia, Nunez-Navarro got right to work in American jurisprudence. In 2011, she started serving as an Assistant State Attorney for Florida’s 17th Circuit Court.
She was appointed Judge to the 17th Circuit in 2018, and, in 2021, she was appointed to the 9th Circuit, moving from Broward County to the Orlando area.
“I love what I do,” she said. “I love sitting on the criminal bench. This is my wheelhouse. And I love teaching. I love the whole journey.”
Nunez-Navarro said it was her father who first urged her to become a lawyer. He saw her debate skills up close. When he would take her on his house calls, there were often some lengthy rides from the hospital in Orlando to some of the smaller towns. That created time for father-daughter talks and debates.
He witnessed his daughter’s sharp mind, even at a young age.
With her father’s encouragement for the profession, Nunez-Navarro went to STU because of what she sees as the essence of the school.
“St. Thomas spoke to the type of lawyer I wanted to become,” she said. “It’s about grit and determination. St. Thomas is like a family, and the people there have been behind me the whole way, celebrating every one of my milestones.
“I love their devotion and dedication to promoting and assisting minority students as well as older students, married students. It adds to the richness and the diversity of the student body.”
If there is one word that describes Nunez-Navarro it is integrity.
“I hold everyone to a standard,” Judge Nunez-Navarro said. “Whether you’re a prosecutor or a public defender, you are to uphold the Constitution. That means, for example, that you have to drop a case if you don’t have what it takes to prove it.
“You are not here to win. You are here for justice, and we should never lose sight of that fact.”