Supreme Court Transitions
- Justice Peggy A. Quince (1999-2019)
- Justice R. Fred Lewis (1999-2019)
- Justice Barbara J. Pariente (1997-2019)
- Justice James E. C. Perry (2009-2016)
- Justice Charles Talley Wells (1994-2009)
- Justice Harry Lee Anstead (1994-2009)
- Justice Kenneth B. Bell (2003-2008)
- Justice Raoul G. Cantero, III (2002-2008)
- Justice C. Alan Lawson (2016-present)
- Justice James E. C. Perry (2009-2016)
- Justice Jorge Labarga (2009-present)
- Justice Ricky Polston (2008-present)
- Justice Charles T. Canady (2008-present)
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
Born in Norfolk, Virginia, Justice Peggy A. Quince has been a Florida resident since 1978, when she settled in Bradenton and opened a law office to practice general civil law. She began a thirteen-and-a-half year tenure with the Florida Office of the Attorney General, Criminal Division, in 1980; as an assistant attorney general, she handled appeals in the Second DCA, the Florida Supreme Court (including death penalty cases), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and the US Supreme Court. Then in 1993, she was selected to serve on the Second DCA—the first African-American woman to be appointed to a Florida district court of appeal. She also has the distinction of being the first African-American woman to serve on the state’s highest court, to which she was appointed in 1998; she was chief justice from 2008 – 2010.
(This link goes to additional biographical information about Justice Quince.)
Open to the public since 1996, the Florida Supreme Court’s Passing of the Gavel ceremonies tend to be uplifting, hope-full rituals that celebrate the achievements of the out-going chief and give voice to the aspirations of the incoming chief. In keeping with this tradition, when the gavel passed from Justice Lewis to Justice Quince, the new chief justice spoke ardently about some of the issues she hoped to spotlight in her two years as the chief administrative officer of the judicial branch. In particular, she emphasized the branch’s indelible commitment to Florida’s children and families, reminding listeners of the need to keep working to ensure that all children in the court system have a voice. To augment the pool of volunteers authorized to speak for these children in court, she urged attorneys to become guardians ad litem and to support a program she hoped to establish to address the needs of older children aging out of the foster care system. She also pledged to continue addressing the hardships faced by individuals with serious mental illnesses who become involved in the justice system, thanking Justice Lewis for his leadership in this endeavor. And she extolled his court diversity and sensitivity awareness program and vowed to sustain that effort. Finally, she spoke about her goal of advancing the production of a book that captures the oral and written histories of Florida’s first black lawyers.
Against the backdrop of this buoyant, auspicious ceremony, however, history was about to lob some huge challenges at the new chief justice. For the Passing of the Gavel took place on June 27, 2008, only a few months after what would later be designated the official beginning of the Great Recession. The second year of Chief Justice Lewis’ tenure had already suffered fallout from the financial upheaval: between October 2007 and May 2008, the judicial branch was hit with three rounds of budget cuts, resulting in a 9.8 percent reduction from its original 2007 – 08 appropriations. But the consequences to Florida’s courts, and to state government generally, were particularly uncompromising through the span of Chief Justice Quince’s incumbency.
While she was chief, among the ramifications of the economic debacle for the judicial branch were austere staff cuts (the branch lost nearly 300 full-time positions), stiff reductions in operating budgets, a hiring freeze, a travel freeze, the curtailment of judicial education programs, the temporary suspension of some court committees and task forces, and a two percent pay cut for elected officials (a reduction that disproportionally affected Florida’s judges)—all at a time when demands on the courts dramatically increased, as they generally do at difficult economic junctures. Simultaneously, like the rest of the world, Florida’s courts were trying to prepare for the possibility of an influenza pandemic, a disaster that could conceivably disrupt court operations for up to 18 months—precisely when courts would likely be facing an increase in emergency matters and case filings. And also within this timeframe, the mortgage foreclosure crisis hit its peak, provoking a colossal spike in backlogged foreclosure cases.
In the course of this precarious period, even some of the long-familiar faces on the court changed: Justices Cantero and Bell resigned in fall 2008, and Justices Anstead and Wells retired in early 2009. Chief Justice Quince was soon sharing the bench with four new jurists: Justices Canady, Polston, Labarga, and Perry.
Despite the intense challenges, Chief Justice Quince spearheaded some significant efforts to improve the administration of justice during her term. For instance, she established the Judicial Branch Governance Study Workgroup, which examined the structure and functions of the governance system (e.g., policy-making, budgeting, rulemaking, leadership, decision-making, planning, and intergovernmental relations) and made recommendations to improve the effective and efficient management of the branch. (Take this link to read about the workgroup.) In addition, under her direction, a statewide, multidisciplinary Dependency Court Improvement Panel was created to improve courtroom practices and decision-making in dependency cases. She also appointed a task force to address the effects on the courts of the mortgage foreclosure crisis. And she laid the groundwork for the creation of the Florida Innocence Commission, which was directed “to conduct a comprehensive study of the causes of wrongful conviction and of measures to prevent such convictions.” (This link goes to the administrative order creating the commission.)
Not surprisingly, however, most of her time and energy had to be trained on figuring out ways to stabilize the operations of the court and on developing a solution for providing long-term, sustainable funding so that the courts could continue to meet their constitutional obligations. Throughout this extraordinarily turbulent period, she led the judicial branch with aplomb, providing what Justice Canady, when the gavel passed to him in 2010, called “firm and steady leadership.”
The daily stresses of those two years, however, have in no way tarnished Justice Quince’s memories of her nearly 20 years on the supreme court bench. She was quick to admit that she’ll miss many aspects of the job, especially the people with whom she’s worked side by side all these years, many of whom she has “become very attached to.” She also knows she’ll reminisce fondly about the extraordinary diversity of her responsibilities as a justice: she described “driving to the supreme court building every morning, knowing there’s going to be a different case, even a different kind of case, each day. Today, I might be consumed with a death penalty case; tomorrow, it might be a bar discipline. It is the variety of issues that makes me look forward to coming to work every day.”
She will also miss playing a part in the supreme court’s deeply meaningful work and the far-reaching ramifications of its decisions. She has been humbled by the solemnity and consequence of the cases she has been called upon to decide. Some of these cases have “absolute importance”—especially death penalty cases, which represent a large portion of the justices’ work and require “a higher degree of attention and time.” Others are high profile cases that have had national significance. Naturally, the first such case she mentioned was Election 2000, calling it a “once in a lifetime experience” and “one of the shining moments for the court.” She remembers those 36 days as a “very challenging, intense, focused time.” And she still marvels that, despite the substantial workload addition and the intense public scrutiny, and despite the throngs of reporters, photographers, demonstrators, and sightseers clustered densely in front of the supreme court building, the justices still successfully “carried on with our regular docket at the same time.”
But she was quick to point out that most of the supreme court’s cases are not high profile, and she emphasized that “Our other cases are no less important, for they touch on a wide variety of issues that affect so many people in Florida. Personal injury, criminal law, family law: whatever decision the court makes, apply it to the 20 million people in the state of Florida. Whether they attract media attention or not, the cases that come before this court will impact a great number of people for years to come,” she underscored. Along these lines, she would offer the following advice to a prospective or new justice, if invited: “Even what looks like a simple case with a simple solution has far-reaching impact and consequences. Each case needs to be taken very seriously.”
Once she’s retired, Justice Quince still intends to continue engaging in some of the important civics-related activities she’s enjoyed these many years as a judge. Judges, both active and retired, are encouraged to take part in teaching audiences of all ages, from all walks of life, about the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, and she has no intention of withdrawing from this role once she steps down. Indeed, she confessed that she has “already been booked” to give talks to numerous school groups, civic groups, church groups, and bar associations.
In addition, after taking what she called a “four-to-six-month breather before getting into anything,” Justice Quince has plans to immerse herself deeply in some of the very causes she highlighted at her Passing of the Gavel ceremony. Because she feels called to do something to help “the many young kids of this state who have no voice about what is happening to them,” first on her list is to become a guardian ad litem: “I want to do what I can to assist these children who are being taken care of by the state, involved in dependency and termination of parental rights and foster care. Once the state has taken them from their parents,” she explained, “I believe it is incumbent on us to make sure these children are treated as well as our own biological children. We need people advocating for them, committed to their best interests.”
One of five children raised by their father in a single-parent household, Justice Quince reflected on the critical role her dad played in her own childhood. For this reason, she said, “I believe there should be someone in everyone’s life to help them through the rough patches. When I was 18, going off to college, I was looking forward to not having my father there to tell me what to do all the time. I felt so grown up! But I knew if there was any issue, I could call my father.” She realizes how fortunate she was—for “Many of these foster kids don’t have anyone they can call on.” She also pointed out that many of them “are at an age where no one wants to adopt them. A 13 year old is not likely to be adopted and will probably age out of foster care. Yet this is a crucial point in their lives.” For they age out at the very time in their lives when they have to start making so many important decisions: “They have to think about getting an apartment, continuing their education, taking care of their finances, buying a car. They have legal issues to deal with, personal issues. In the normal scheme of things,” she added, “they could talk about these issues with their parents around the dining table. But these foster care kids often don’t have the benefit of that.” As a guardian ad litem, Justice Quince will be able to be that person for some of these kids.
Many people suffer some anxiety when thinking about retirement; they fear they won’t have enough to do to fill their time or they won’t be occupied gainfully. But Justice Quince clearly has it figured out for herself: “The key to retiring is having meaningful things to do with your life,” she declared. For her, this meaningfulness will include “being a guardian ad litem, travelling, and speaking to civic organizations, school groups, church groups.” With such a richly tapestried future, she is quite certain that retirement will offer many rewards.
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
Born in Beckley, West Virginia, Justice R. Fred Lewis made Florida his home in 1965, when the offer of a basketball and academic scholarship from Florida Southern College drew him to Lakeland. Upon graduating, he moved to Miami to attend the University of Miami School of Law; after receiving his law degree, he attended the United States Army Adjutant General School. Following his discharge from the military, he entered private practice in Miami, specializing in civil trial and appellate litigation. He remained in Miami until his appointment to the Florida Supreme Court in December 1998; he served as chief justice from 2006 – 2008. (Take this link for more biographical information about Justice Lewis.)
“Son, how’d you like to come to Florida?” asked the coach from Florida Southern College—visiting Beckley, West Virginia, to recruit the town’s most promising student athletes. “Holy Jesus, thank you! I’ve been asked to go to heaven!” was the first thought of the bright, gifted basketball and baseball player—and future Florida Supreme Court justice. For the young R. Fred Lewis, son of a coal miner from “the city that thrives on smokeless coal”—as Beckley has proudly called itself since the 1920s—moving to Florida was “beyond the dreams I had. Where I come from, only special people could go to Florida back then,” Justice Lewis elucidated. “It was expensive, so it was a place you only heard about, like you hear about Disneyland. And now I was being offered the opportunity not only to go to Florida but to live there and have it paid for! —Not a bad deal,” he exclaimed.
“And I’m still here. Never went home again. And I’ve never regretted it at all,” he added—doubtless in part because Florida offered him yet another “opportunity of a lifetime”: to be a Florida Supreme Court justice. This prospect surpassed all imaginings for him: “I never in my wildest dreams ever thought I’d have this privilege, this opportunity to serve on the supreme court,” he emphasized. Even after nearly 20 years, his gratitude for having been selected for this honor is still fresh: “I come to work each morning feeling very thankful. Each morning, I say, ‘Thank you, God, for giving me the opportunity to serve the people of Florida.’ That’s a consistent thought every day,” he shared.
But even though Justice Lewis has remained in Florida all these years, never far from his heart, or his conversations, are anecdotes about his hometown and the people, values, and customs that nurtured him: “I respect my background, my roots, and the people in Beckley; I love them dearly,” he said. That he continues to be shaped deeply by his cultural inheritance is palpable to anyone who has visited him in his chambers: signs of his birthplace ornament his desk and walls, serving as constant reminders of his modest beginnings (the jar of coal from near his mother’s home—which also figures prominently in his official portrait—is probably the most stirring memorial).
When asked how he navigated the twisty and unforeseeable journey from Beckley to Florida’s highest court, Justice Lewis was quick to attribute much of his success to the encouragement and guidance he received from his Beckley school teachers, whom he called “the backbone of the state,” adding, “There’s something about that little state; It doesn’t produce much of anything, but it does seem to produce good teachers. In a small community like I come from,” he elaborated, “teaching is probably the highest profession. My dad didn’t care a hoot about lawyers and judges, but, boy, teachers and coaches to him were the epitome. He never went to school, and he considered teachers as bastions of the community.”
For Justice Lewis, teachers are “formative people,” sources of constancy, stability, and continuity, and they played a particularly important and poignant role in his early years. He grew up in “a rough and tumble community” with a dad whom he described as “a rough and tumble guy.” Even though his mom “had no education—she left school when she was 15 to marry my dad”—it was she who provided him with “a semblance of genteelness and social appropriateness.” But his mother passed away when he was very young. “After she died, I didn’t have any relatives around who could help mold me or guide me to where I should be,” he explained. “It was my teachers who filled that role, helping me understand what I should and shouldn’t do. When they corrected, it was not done as a punishment; it was very loving direction. And they did it in such a way that I grew from it. They watched after what I was doing and encouraged me.”
He called his teachers “good, loving, kind people who were very interested in the children and looked after them. For them,” he observed, “teaching was truly a profession, it wasn’t just a job, and their support built in me a trust and confidence, a respect, and love for educators. It just became part of who I was. And that doesn’t leave you; throughout life, it’s always there.” He then spontaneously reeled off the names of all his elementary school teachers, in grade order—and offered to recite the names of all his junior high and high school teachers as well!
Justice Lewis concurred that the early and profound guiding influence of his teachers could easily account for his passionate, hands-on commitment, as a justice, to Florida’s teachers and its students. For instance, consider his longstanding and extensive involvement with the Justice Teaching Institute, a program that invites up to 25 Florida teachers to the supreme court each year for a five-day education program designed to help them introduce their students to the vital roles courts play in our society.
Moreover, consider his establishment, while serving as chief justice, of Justice Teaching, an initiative that has grown to pair more than 4,000 volunteer judges and lawyers with elementary, middle, and high schools in Florida to enhance civic and law-related education. As soon as he came to the court, years before Justice Teaching became formalized, he explained, “I started going out on my own to the schools to teach the kids.” He described “seeing an extreme need that needed to be addressed because of the woeful status of civic education for our kids. Providing them with good, correct information to me was of critical value.” He counts the founding of Justice Teaching as one of his greatest achievements as a justice. Indeed, he was nationally honored for this effort: in 2014, he received the prestigious Sandra Day O’Connor Award for the Advancement of Civics Education, which recognizes Justice Teaching as one of the top civic education programs in the country.
Responding to a question about other accomplishments of which he is particularly proud, Justice Lewis noted that, “As we rotate through the front office [i.e., serve as chief justice], each of us has ideas about concerns that we think ought to be addressed.” He served as chief from 2006 – 08, and that was his opportunity to focus on some of the issues that he felt needed attention. In addition to wanting to do something about the state of civic education in Florida, Justice Lewis was troubled by the increase in the number of repeat offenders with untreated mental illnesses coming into Florida’s courts. To address this issue, he convened the court system’s first inter-branch mental health summit, which culminated in the development and proposal of a comprehensive strategy for addressing the needs of people with mental illnesses who are caught up in the criminal justice system. He knows the progress in implementing this strategy has been slow, but he is “thankful for baby steps; I understand you can’t climb a mountain all in the first day.”
As chief justice, he also established a committee to develop a survey with which to audit all court facilities in the state, with the goal of identifying and removing barriers that inhibit access to justice for people with disabilities. “I firmly believe that the denial of access to a disabled individual is as heinous and illegitimate as racial or ethnic bias or any other barrier to getting into the courthouse,” he emphasized. But he did face some hurdles: “Our biggest obstacle regarding architectural accessibility is that the courts do not own or control the trial court buildings,” he pointed out, “but I thought it important that we at least identify the problems in an honest and open way, in an informational way, to help the counties make the necessary changes.” He has been “so pleased with the results” of the survey and the counties’ responses, and he praised the “many wonderful people from all across the state who helped with this.”
In addition, because of his background in civil litigation, Justice Lewis saw the need for better jury instructions in complex cases. When he was chief justice, he finally had a chance to do something about it: he created the Supreme Court Committee on Standard Jury Instructions—Contract and Business Cases, which produced a complete, stand-alone set of jury instructions for contract and business litigation. “For years, I had been the liaison to the Standard Jury Instructions Committee—the negligence committee—and every time I’d ask that group, ‘Why don’t we expand the standard jury instructions to cover other areas?’ the response was, ‘Oh, it can’t be done.’ Well, all you gotta do is tell me it can’t be done, and I’ll show you it can be done! I knew it could be. The question was having the energy and the will to do it. So I was very pleased when we were able to establish these instructions as a permanent fixture; I consider it to be extremely important to the people of Florida and to the trial lawyers.”
And, finally, Justice Lewis called to mind some of his efforts to implement updates and improvements to the Florida Supreme Court Building. “I was concerned about this building,” he admitted. The building was new when the court moved into it in 1949, but “It never had a replacement program in place that office buildings typically have to ensure they keep current.” He had the carpet replaced with more durable coverings—granite and tile—and authorized other functional improvements. He also had the supreme court’s four floors renumbered: the floors used to be labeled subbasement, basement, first floor, and second floor, but “I told the marshal I don’t want any basements, any subbasements. It didn’t seem right. I don’t want anybody to have to say, ‘I go to work in the subbasement of the Florida Supreme Court.’ We’re going to number our floors one to four. That to me was a dignity kind of thing.” The interior of the building continues to be fully functional and to look beautiful today, thanks to the improvements Justice Lewis initiated.
Certainly, his years on the court have not always been easy, and 2012 was particularly difficult: “The loss of my daughter Lindsay, of course, had a major impact on our family. And the loss of my father that year, who lived with us and died when he was 102. And all of this happened during that merit retention period,” when he and Justices Pariente and Quince were gearing up for their final merit retention votes and faced organized opposition from several conservative political groups. “The impact was at least perceived by my family as being heightened because you couldn’t get away from it,” Justice Lewis remarked; “You’d get up every morning, and something else was going wrong.” That was an unspeakably painful period for him and his family.
However, he has no regrets about his decision to serve on the court. “As you get older,” he philosophized, “you recognize how short life really is. I could have had more fun not coming here. But I probably could not have accomplished much of anything other than representing my own clients. And that’s what tipped it over for me to come here: I came to an understanding that it was time for me to do more for more people than just my client base. And to try to get it right, not just help them win.”
Asked if he’ll miss anything when he leaves the court, without pause he said, “I will miss participating in the process to get it right, that’s what I will miss. Because I think what this court does and needs to do affects so many people in Florida, and I will miss the opportunity to assist in that process. It may be egotistical to think I have a worthy idea of what’s right. But I do believe, based on my background and where I come from, that there are certain things that are right and certain things that are not right. There are certain fundamental things that are the way they need to be to be fair to all people, and I’ll miss having a role in that.” In the end, he said, “I’m truly, truly thankful that I’ve had this opportunity, and I know in my heart that, although I do make mistakes, I’ve tried my very best to get it right in serving the people of Florida.”
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
Born in New York City, Justice Barbara J. Pariente has been a Floridian since 1973, when she moved to Fort Lauderdale for a two-year judicial clerkship with Judge Norman C. Roettger, Jr., of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. In 1993, after 18 years in private practice specializing in civil trial litigation in West Palm Beach, she was appointed to the Fourth District Court of Appeal, where she served until her appointment to the Supreme Court of Florida in 1997. She was the court’s chief justice from 2004 – 2006, the second woman to serve in that role. (Take this link for more biographical information about Justice Pariente.)
Justice Pariente distinctly remembers her first visit to the Florida Supreme Court. It was November 1985. In private practice at the time, she had traveled from West Palm Beach to Tallahassee to witness an historic event: Fourth DCA Judge Rosemary Barkett, her longtime friend, being sworn in as the supreme court’s first woman justice. On a visit to Tallahassee more than a decade later, after having applied to fill a vacancy on the state’s highest court, she was struck by the realization that she, too, might someday be sitting on the supreme court bench. She was visiting the state capital with Doris Davis, a young woman whom, through the Take Stock in Children Program, she began mentoring in 1996 (that relationship continues today: Ms Davis is now an attorney, mother of two, and wife living in Tallahassee). Recollecting that day, she said, “I have a memory of standing at the Capitol. I looked across the street at the supreme court and said to Doris, ‘I may be working there one day!’ And that excitement I felt is something I’ll never forget,” she exclaimed.
By the time Justice Pariente retires, she’ll have been on the supreme court bench for just over 21 years, making her Florida’s ninth-longest serving justice (since the court first sat, in 1846, it has had 86 justices). For those who know her at all, it should be no surprise that, when asked what she has most looked forward to while driving to work each day, this quintessential people-person instantly replied, “the people! Being able to interact with my staff attorneys and with Brenda Williams [her judicial assistant] to do the work of writing opinions and the administrative work—that’s something I’ve really enjoyed. When I come to work, there’s Brenda, and no matter what’s going on, she’s always upbeat. A cheerleader! She’s been a great source of joy in my life.” After a pause, she added, “There are so many people here at the court that I have great affection for. Like some of the deputy marshals who’ve worked here.” She also singled out the staff of the Office of Court Improvement, a unit in the Office of the State Courts Administrator, to whom she expressed gratitude for having done “some of the heaviest lifting” in helping the branch implement its visionary family court (a project she spearheaded) and problem-solving court initiatives.
In addition to the people, Justice Pariente has “really enjoyed” the behind-the-scenes work of the court, especially “the crafting of opinions,” a process that has altered dramatically “because technology has improved so much over the last 20 years.” She remembers “having to rely on my staff to make handwritten changes in the past,” but now, “features like track changes and bold and strike through make the process so much easier.” She also looks forward to court conferences, which she described as being, “with a couple of exceptions over the years, generally very collegial. We do important work during this time, in a way that respects everybody’s opinion.” When speaking to new judges, Justice Pariente invariably stresses the values of collegiality and of “being willing to listen, learn, dialogue.” She conceded that while the justices “don’t always agree, we are always collegial.” As of late, justices are no longer expected to live in Tallahassee full-time, so building collegiality might become a greater challenge, and she worries that “That change is going to have an effect on the court.” But she suggested that this potential issue “could be remedied by the times when everybody is here, during oral argument and court conferences; the justices can make it more collegial by maybe having lunch or dinner together. Collegiality is an important part of being on a seven-member court,” she emphasized.
She has also “always looked forward to oral arguments—though not everybody has that same view,” she acknowledged. As to her “demeanor” on the public bench, she noted that “I have been criticized—as well as praised—for being an active questioner! But I enjoy the process of having lawyers who are prepared—and are prepared to answer tough questions that really help me understand their views so that I can make an informed decision.”
On the heels of her musings about the pleasures of opinion-writing, court conferences, and oral arguments, a query about the accomplishments of which she is most proud led her to reflect on some of the most consequential cases on which the court has ruled during her two decades on the bench. Naturally, Bush v. Gore came to mind first: “I was proud of the court during that time, and I was proud of what the majority of the court decided in the final decision that the US Supreme Court disagreed with,” she declared. “I think we were right,” she added, “And we did it under very difficult circumstances. I’m very proud of that.” She also referred to “the court’s rulings on reapportionment, which went on for several years,” calling this work “something that will live on” (the Florida Supreme Court was called upon first to rule on whether the 2012 apportionment of Florida’s legislative districts violated the Florida Constitution and then on whether both the state house and congressional districts violated the Fair District Amendments to the constitution by advancing partisan political intent).
She is also categorically proud of the concerted way in which everyone in the branch worked to facilitate the smooth implementation of Revision 7, a 1998 voter-approved constitutional amendment designed to relieve local governments of the increasing costs of subsidizing the trial courts and to ensure equity in court funding across each county, enabling every Floridian to have access to essential trial court services. Revision 7 took effect on July 1, 2004—the day before Justice Pariente began her two-year term as chief justice. Her pride in the success of this branch-wide transition process is captured in her “Message from the Chief Justice” heading up the 2004 – 2005 Florida State Courts Annual Report; here, she called attention to the momentousness of the achievement and to the stalwart efforts of the judges and court personnel who made it possible: “This has been an historic year for Florida’s judiciary. The excitement began the very first day of the fiscal year, when the branch finally became a truly unified court system funded with state money. Although realized on a single day, this major transformation was several years in the making. And it simply could not have been accomplished without the hard work of many people in all three branches of state government. Most Floridians never noticed a thing on July 1, 2004. That was a good thing—and it was thanks to the skill and dedication of the hundreds of people who spent many thousands of hours on the transition to the state-funded court system that voters demanded when they approved Revision 7 to the Florida Constitution in 1998,” she wrote.
But of everything Justice Pariente has worked to accomplish since January 1998, when she officially began her work as a supreme court justice, she is “most proud of the movement in the court system over the last 20 years in the area of family and problem-solving courts.” The judicial branch’s Steering Committee on Families and Children in the Court—which just awarded her its inaugural Justice for Children and Families Award—attributes much of this “movement” to Justice Pariente’s vision, passion, and dedication over the years. Her formal involvement with family court began in January 1999, when she was named supreme court liaison to the Family Court Steering Committee. The steering committee’s crowning achievement was its development of recommendations, guiding principles, and essential elements for a model family court, which were unanimously approved by the court in a 2001 opinion. She worked closely with this committee and its subsequent iteration for 17 years, serving either as its chair or its justice liaison, guiding its multidisciplinary efforts to establish a fully integrated, comprehensive approach to handling cases involving children and families.
While she recognizes that “There will always be much work to be done for Florida’s vulnerable children and families,” she also “beams with pride” when she considers the steering committee’s accomplishments over the years: the creation of resources to assist judges, court personnel, and litigants; helpful changes to the rules of judicial administration, family law rules of procedure, and Florida statutes; the coordination of statewide conferences and workshops as well as regional trainings, technical assistance site visits, and local training events; the development of streamlined procedures to help with the identification of related cases; and the implementation of the one family/one judge model in circuits across the state.
Justice Pariente’s top priorities as a justice have consistently been her determined focus on family court and her efforts to ensure that lower income, disabled, abused, and neglected children have greater access to the courts; she has also been a steadfast advocate for drug court and other problem-solving courts. Since her arrival at the supreme court, two of her “mantras” have been, “We must invest in the front end so that we can keep our young people from graduating from our juvenile justice system into our adult prison population,” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “The time is always right to do what is right.”
Although Justice Pariente will miss being on the front line of these life- and paradigm-changing initiatives, at the same time, she is quick to assert that she will decidedly not miss certain elements of the job. “On a personal level,” she affirmed, “I will not miss being separated from my husband” (until he retired in 2013, Fred Hazouri was a DCA judge in West Palm Beach). “Being separated from him, from my mother [who passed away in December 2017], and my family has been a real hardship,” she confided. Because she has lived at a distance from her family, she’s had to go through “some very difficult things here by myself,” she said, mentioning the Bush v. Gore cases and her treatment and recovery from breast cancer (with which she had been diagnosed in March 2003).
“And these years on the supreme court have not exactly been a walk in the park” on a professional level, either, she admitted, calling them “very stressful, sometimes contentious.” She understands that “You’re never going to please everyone. In fact, in any case, there’s going to be someone who’s winning and someone who’s losing, so you’re never going to please all the litigants.” And she also knows she has to “try to keep a thick skin when you’re attacked by people who are unhappy with the decisions we reach. But it can be difficult at times,” she revealed.
The difficulties were particularly pronounced in the months leading up to the 2012 election, when she and two other justices were on the ballot for merit retention: she and Justices Lewis and Quince encountered organized, well-funded, highly vocal opposition from several conservative political groups. When powerful special interest groups seek to influence the scales of justice, the fairness and impartiality of the courts is threatened—and Justice Pariente saw this as a call to action: since that election, she has been involved with the Informed Voters – Fair Judges Project (https://ivp.nawj.org/), a non-partisan voter education initiative of the National Association of Women Judges. Through Informed Voters, she has spoken to groups across the country about the importance of insulating judges from unfair political attacks. And, once retired, she will continue these efforts to educate voters, “especially when judges are unfairly attacked, and to encourage lawyers to be warriors for the court.”
Although she is a staunch supporter of enhancing civic education for young people, in retirement, her educational focus is likely to be on adults. She wants to “continue to inform the public and the press that judicial opinions are more than just the label ‘activist,’ ‘reactionary,’ ‘conservative,’ ‘liberal.’ Those labels never end up helping people understand what the controversy was. They reduce opinions to soundbites, which can undermine public trust and confidence. That’s something I want to keep working on—to help people have a thoughtful understanding of what the justice system is about and how the court makes its hard decisions.”
Retirement also means returning to West Palm Beach and spending more time with her family. Another grandchild—her eleventh!—was born a few months ago, and she is eager “to enjoy another newborn. It’s the best thing, to be a grandparent, because you don’t have to get up at night, and you can just enjoy the innocence of this new life!” she enthused. As for leaving the court, she said, “I‘ve gotten so much out of this and hopefully have given a lot. I feel I will miss it.
But by then, I will have been a justice for 21 years, which is long enough. I am looking forward to the next chapter in my life: to be home with my husband and family and friends. But hopefully to help make a difference for those who cannot advocate for themselves, especially children!”
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
James E. C. Perry, a native of New Bern, North Carolina, was appointed as the eighty-fifth justice to the Florida Supreme Court by Governor Charlie Crist and took office on March 11, 2009. Prior to sitting on the supreme court bench, he served as a circuit judge in Florida’s Eighteenth Judicial Circuit, appointed by Governor Jeb Bush in March 2000; he was the first African-American appointed to the Eighteenth Circuit and was its chief judge from 2003 – 2005.
The Florida Constitution sets the mandatory retirement age for state judges and justices at 70 years old, the exact date depending on when their seventieth birthday occurs. Justice Perry reached what is jocularly referred to as “constitutional senility” in 2014. Because his birthday fell in the second half of his six-year term, he was able to remain on the bench until his term expired. He retired from the supreme court bench on December 30, 2016.
Nearly eight years have passed since Justice Perry joined the supreme court. Of the court’s seven justices, he was the last one appointed, so it has been a while since anyone would have had reason to ponder over the kinds of personal qualities that might ease a newly-appointed justice’s transition to the supreme court bench. Justice Perry’s imminent retirement presented an opportunity to seek his unique perspective on this matter.
When asked what advice he might impart to a new supreme court appointment, Justice Perry’s first response was an eloquent silence. Then, after a deep chuckle, he declared, “The problem is that this is unlike any other experience; you can’t really prepare to do this—there’s really no preparation. What advice would I give a new supreme court justice? I don’t have a clue!” But after a brief interval, he offered the following: “Just be honest, have integrity, have a sense of purpose, fairness, and justice. And remember that you’re dealing with issues that affect everyday life”—a point that he quickly clarified: “Sometimes we can lose sight of the fact that this is not just an academic pursuit, where you go through legal gymnastics and come to a conclusion. You need to determine how your decisions are going to impact the average man and woman walking around on the street.”
Another expressive pause followed. But it soon gave way to a bustling, wide-ranging exchange, during which Justice Perry segued seamlessly from stories about some of his most memorable public school teachers and what they taught him, to his recipe for writing clear, meaningful opinions. During the course of this conversational journey, the justice offered a bounty of aphorisms and common sense advice from which any aspiring or newly-appointed jurist—surely, any human being—might learn a useful thing or two. Broadly speaking, his insights fell into four overlapping areas: the need to recognize and respect everyone’s humanity; the importance of feeling comfortable in your own skin; the wisdom of fostering collegiality; and the responsibility to communicate plainly and comprehensibly.
Clearly, Justice Perry thinks deeply about “the average man and woman walking around on the street” (he admitted that, before he makes a final decision, one of the questions he asks himself is, “Does this make walking-around sense?”). For he recognizes that, at heart, “We are all human beings. We have a sense of humor. We have pain. We have suffering….” This appreciation of the humanity in everyone probably explains why he believes it is “important for judges to go out and speak to the community.” He sees these occasions as opportunities to connect with people and help them understand something about the justice system: “For people have no idea what we do and how important it is. And they are always interested in hearing a judge speak.” He gets asked to speak at a great many events, and “rather than preparing a speech that the audience might not be interested in,” he invites people to ask him questions—“That becomes my whole presentation. For they have a lot of questions,” he exclaimed. He also pointedly avoids using his title when he introduces himself: “I purposefully don’t walk into a room and say, ‘I’m Justice Perry.’ I say, ‘I’m Jim Perry.’” He knows that his title—which reflects “what I do, not who I am”—is likely to “build a wall between us”; when he presents himself by name rather than title, he hopes to “tear this wall down.” He noted that the average person does not understand how the courts operate; and, historically, people have had doubts about the efficiency, fairness, and accessibility of the court system. Thus “It doesn’t bode well for judges to be so mysterious, so unapproachable.” He wants people to see that “Judges are human beings like everyone else. The air here is not any more rarefied than the air anyone else breathes.” And again he distinguished between what he does and who he is: “Take seriously what you do, but not who you are. I try not to take myself too seriously,” he added with a chuckle.
When asked to talk a bit about “who he is,” Justice Perry responded, “I’m happy. I’m at peace with myself. I don’t talk down to anybody. I don’t talk up to anybody. I’m not trying to impress anybody.” Governor Charlie Crist said that this unassuming manner “really struck” him when the aspiring justice visited the governor’s office to be interviewed for the supreme court vacancy. The governor described his office as being “big and imposing,” so, upon welcoming his guest, the governor invited him to “Please be comfortable”—to which Justice Perry is said to have responded, “I am the most comfortable man you’re ever going to meet. I just do what’s right, so I’m never going to be uncomfortable.” Justice Perry’s disposition to “be at peace” and to “be comfortable” is palpable to anyone who spends any time with him, and it is a quality from which most people would benefit, especially judges. For, “In this line of work, people often disagree with or disapprove of you,” he warned, “so it’s very important that you don’t disapprove of yourself; you have to be comfortable in your own skin to be comfortable with the criticism.” He also stressed that “Being a judge is not a popularity contest. And it shouldn’t be. You need to be satisfied with who you are.”
This might be especially true of a supreme court justice, because the seven of them must learn to work efficiently and effectively together as a unit. Speaking of his colleagues, he said, “My story is different from anybody else’s. My decisions were honed and influenced by my experiences; they are ‘baked in,’ part of the water the fish swims in. We all have different stories.” But, even so, “You can learn to disagree in an agreeable manner. And that’s what collegiality is really all about,” he emphasized. “The bottom line is that we are all human beings; we have families, children, health issues….” He recognizes that “Maybe we won’t change each other’s minds. But we can respect each other’s opinions. And like each other as people.” When asked what he does to help achieve this level of respect and amity, he says, quite simply, “We go to lunch: when you go to lunch, you get to know someone. And then you can see why they think the way they do. And they can see why you think the way you do.” Lunching together is surely a good strategy for building collegiality. Indeed, he shares his warm collegiality with all the people who work in the supreme court building, speaking kindly with everyone he passes in its halls: “We’re all in the human family,” he remarked: “We have different jobs, different lives. But it takes a village to raise this democracy we have.” Ultimately, he sees everyone as working together, doing his or her part to “make things better.”
One of the topics to which Justice Perry circled back the most was communication—specifically, the importance of communicating clearly and understandably. Regardless of who he’s talking to, or who he’s writing for, he said, “I don’t try to razzle dazzle people with esoteric language. The goal is to communicate. It would be like me speaking to you in French when you don’t understand French. What’s the point? The whole purpose of communication is to get people to understand what you’re saying.” This is no less true when he writes opinions: “With all my opinions, in the first 70 words, you understand the pertinent facts, the pros and cons, and the conclusion—in plain, clear language, so that if you don’t want to read any further, you know where I’m going. The whole reason for writing opinions is to communicate to the judge and the public. They have a right to know without having to read through 120 pages!”
Given his dedication to the responsible and straightforward expression and interchange of thoughts and ideas, it should come as no surprise that Justice Perry’s favorite subject in high school was English (especially grammar: he laughed softly upon recalling that one of his teachers spent six weeks on the verb “to be,” and after mentioning that he particularly loved learning how to diagram sentences in fifth grade, he proceeded to diagram a quite complex one in the air with his finger!). He attributed his passion for strong, unambiguous communication to his having had exceptionally good teachers as a child and young man, noting that “one of the unintended consequences of segregation” was that many African-Americans with masters degrees and even doctorates, because they had limited job opportunities, ended up teaching in the public schools that served minority students.
As the interview wound down, Justice Perry became pensive about the chance-driven journey that led him, against so many odds, to the bench of the Florida Supreme Court: “I always wanted to make a difference. I had a plan to make things better for the generations that follow me. But I had no idea how to go about doing it. And I still don’t understand how it happened. But I’m just thankful that it did.”
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
“I think I was extremely fortunate to come to the court at a time when Florida was becoming such an important political state in the country as well as such an important economic state. And that, of course, meant that there were a lot of issues confronting the country that came through our court,” remarked Justice Wells, after pondering some of the most memorable experiences of his nearly 15 years on the supreme court bench. Three experiences, all of which unfolded while he was chief justice (2000-2002)—and all of which were decidedly momentous, suffused with stresses and excitements and meaningful ramifications for the judicial branch—readily came to his mind.
Not surprisingly, the first was the 2000 presidential election cases. Although he described the 38-day period as being “certainly very taxing,” he also called it “the type of experience that you really feel privileged to be a part of.” The professionalism of the supreme court staff, the way everyone “rose to the occasion to do world-class service—and provided it!”—remains especially indelible for him. He vividly recalls the efforts of Craig Waters, director of public information, to supply the news media with the most up-to-date opinions and reports, and the endeavors of Tom Hall, supreme court clerk, and his staff, who worked extravagantly long days to file the necessary papers, maintain the case files, and track the cases’ progress. He also called attention to the “extraordinary service” of former Marshal Wilson Barnes and his staff, who were “able to firmly and tirelessly, but courteously, maintain order outside the court even with the very large crowds that gathered. We had not a single incident.” He called this period of Florida judicial history “a unique experience for this court and for all the courts that were involved in it” and “a fascinating and historic” phenomenon.
Also ranking high on Justice Wells’ list of significant milestones is 9/11, which was followed by the anthrax scares in courts around the state—crises that prompted him to initiate the development of emergency preparedness measures throughout the state court system. Many of Florida’s courthouses were affected by anthrax threats, he noted, but what gives him great pride is that “Throughout that very stressful period, we kept all of the courts open and did not miss any days or even hours of service.” Since then, Justice Wells’ directive to “Keep the courts open” has become a kind of mantra for those in the judicial branch who are responsible for addressing emergency management issues, and it underscores his—and the branch’s—priority to ensure that no one—even in the aftermath of an emergency event—is deprived of access to the courts.
Justice Wells also ruminated on the enormous importance of Revision 7, the voter-approved amendment that shifted the primary funding responsibility for the state court system from the counties to the state. This constitutional amendment was passed in 1998, soon after Justice Harding became chief, and was implemented in 2004, the last day that Justice Anstead was chief. Serving as chief between them, Justice Wells was extensively involved in helping to prepare the judicial branch for this move toward budgetary unification. While he was chief, the court adopted the Rule of Judicial Administration formalizing the structure of the Trial Court Budget Commission, and he appointed the commission’s first members. Creating the commission was one of the highlights of this period for him: “As time has passed, we have, I believe, seen the wisdom in setting up that structure so that there would be procedures in place” for developing and administering trial court budgets fairly across the 20 circuits.
On a more personal note, Justice Wells reminisced fondly about State Courts Administrator Ken Palmer, who passed away while Justice Wells was chief. “We were all so dependent on his experience and knowledge of the court system,” he reflected. He considers Mr. Palmer “a pioneer and leader who was able to convert Florida’s court system into a statewide court system that could serve the diverse state that Florida became in the 90s” and said that “One of his truly lasting gifts to the court system was that he mentored an exceptional staff. Because of that, when he got sick, his duties were able to be undertaken by [Deputy State Courts Administrators] Lisa Goodner and Dee Beranek; upon Dee’s retirement, Lisa has been and continues to be a strong leader for the Office of Court Administration.” He concluded, “I leave the court system with full confidence that the administration of Florida’s courts is in exceedingly capable hands.”
But not all of Justice Wells’ most compelling memories of his years on the bench are weighty and stress-ridden. In fact, he also has “great memories of watching the various acts that came to entertain the crowds spontaneously while they were all gathered outside the supreme court building” during the 38 days of election 2000. He would witness the spectacles daily from his office window. “I remember one woman brought a pet skunk,” he recalled with delight; “She could make it do back-flips,” he chuckled. “And there were jugglers out there too—it was quite a scene!” This unexpected entertainment definitely “provided relief and levity—and we needed it at that time,” he declared. Undoubtedly, it was a healthy antidote to the gravity of the situation: “It is very much a handicap if you take it to a level where the weight of it begins to wear you down,” he added—words that everyone needs to remember on occasion.
When asked what he thought he’d miss the most when he retires, he said, “What has always fascinated me about the law is the puzzle of it—trying to figure it out, figure out the problems and how the law should relate to the solving of those problems in a practical and commonsensical way.” Before becoming a justice, in his nearly 30 years of private practice, “I had so many demands on my time, which did not allow for periods of study and concentration on [legal] issues.” As a member of the court, however, he has had the time to study the law deeply, the chance to “concentrate, to figure those puzzles out; I’m really going to miss that.”
And he’ll also miss some of the people he’s come to know during his time on the court: “I’ve had such a superlative judicial assistant [Pam Stewart] and 17 extremely capable staff attorneys who’ve worked in my office since June 1994.” He expressed particular delight that 16 of them would be returning for his February 6th retirement ceremony. And about his colleagues on the bench, he said, “I’ve also worked with and met extremely capable lawyers who have been justices while I’ve been on this court; I appreciate so much their dedication to the court.”
As for what he plans to do next, he quipped, “Go back to work!” He quickly explained, “This has been too much fun to be totally work” because he has really relished “the stimulation of playing a part in looking at so many of the issues that confront us.” He plans to return to private practice, part time in Tallahassee, part time outside of Orlando, from where he hails. For pleasure, he’ll indulge in his “preoccupation” with the Gators, and he also looks forward to doing “a good bit of travelling,” especially to visit with family: his six grandchildren (with a seventh on the way at the end of March) are his “full-time hobby.”
Although Justice Wells has “great reservations about the fact of leaving the court,” he’s a strong believer in mandatory retirement for judges, especially in courts of last resort, explaining that “It takes the personality out of when people leave the court. This way, there’s input into the make-up of the court by the other branches of government. I think it’s very important that the court be a dynamic institution,” he continued. Besides, he pointed out, he’s been at the supreme court nearly 15 years—“just the right length of time here”—and, looking ahead to his last days on the bench, he playfully announced, “The official recognition of my ‘senility’ will be on the 3rd of March.”
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
Justice Anstead made it clear that he preferred not to be the subject of a farewell article—and the editors of this newsletter believe that such a request should be respected. But it would be inconceivable not to call some attention to the jurist who, in the words of long-time colleague Justice Barbara J. Pariente, has been “a brilliant writer, a tireless worker, and a passionate and courageous advocate.” Among Justice Anstead’s many accomplishments, he “shepherded the court system through the monumental efforts of the transition to state funding under Revision 7”; he is considered by many to be “the father of professionalism in Florida” because of his creation of a permanent professionalism center and his focus on the ways in which attorneys treat one another; and he has been steadfast in his commitment to helping “society’s abused, neglected, and abandoned [children] who have been placed in the trust of the judicial system.” She added, “The theme of his entire life as a judge has been one of treating others, no matter what their station in life, with respect and dignity.” Justice Pariente emphasized, and his own opinions reflect, that he has consistently been “a passionate voice for the fundamental rights we all enjoy as Americans and Floridians.” For all these qualities, she believes, he will “go down in history as one of our greatest justices.”
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
Justice Bell’s first truly memorable experience of his nearly six years on the supreme court bench occurred within moments of the December 31, 2002, press conference at which Governor Bush announced the young circuit judge’s appointment to the High Court. After the press conference was over, the supreme court marshal, who had attended the press conference, escorted Justice Bell to the court, which is right across the street. Still an active First Circuit trial judge who was in the thick of a plethora of pending cases, Justice Bell assumed he’d have about a month to wrap up his business before taking office at the supreme court. But he quickly discovered that that was not to be. Two hours after the press conference was over, the newly-appointed justice left the supreme court laden with two ponderous boxes of files, a laptop, and instructions to be ready for conference on Wednesday and oral argument the following week. Referring playfully to his introduction to the supreme court as “the immersion method of becoming a supreme court justice,” Justice Bell said with a laugh, “Some people get wet gradually; I got thrown in!”
A second press conference incident is also a fond memory for Justice Bell. Just prior to the press conference, he and his family were in the governor’s office. The justice’s four children ranged in age from 17 to seven, and Governor Bush, wanting to entertain the kids, drew their attention to a satellite map of Florida on the wall and proceeded to give them “a tour” of the area over which he governed. He began by pointing out Key West and methodically worked his way north, going from east to west. But there was one conspicuous problem: “the governor’s map ended at the Apalachicola River—as if the rest of Florida didn’t even exist”; as a result, Pensacola, the hometown of the incoming justice and his family, wasn’t even on the map! But Justice Bell was very judicious in his response to the absence, noting, “I’m the first justice from that part of the state in over 100 years; also, people from other parts of Florida tend to forget about anything west of the Apalachicola River.” Nonetheless, at his investiture, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a little fun and offer everyone a brief history lesson: handing the governor a satellite map of the rest of Florida, he reminded attendees of Pensacola’s status as the state’s very first settlement.
On a more serious note, Justice Bell declared that the aspect of the position that he’ll miss the most is “the privilege of travelling across the state and working with other justices, judges, justice system partners, and the legislature to make sure the court system is adequately funded”—an issue that he plans to continue advocating. He added, “I’ve always viewed the pursuit of justice as a team effort, and I know I will miss my teammates, especially my six fellow justices, the staff attorneys, and OSCA staff.” He also stressed that he will look back warmly at his liaisons with bar sections, committees, and the circuit and DCA conferences—as well as “the ability to work on policy issues with such a diverse, statewide group of people.”
Reflecting on his decision to return to private practice in Pensacola after his nearly 18 years on the bench, he acknowledged that, “In private practice, you have a much narrower range of contacts, so my pursuit of justice will narrow now.” Being in private practice also means that “I will miss being here in the scrum, on the frontline, of the justice system. As a justice, you are in the best position to try to make the system work, and you have a greater impact than you would in private practice.” Over the years, he has especially relished the chance to see “different people in the justice system using their talents to maintain and improve the system,” and he admitted that he’ll miss this too.
Like Justice Cantero, Justice Bell brought up the Terri Schiavo case as one of his most memorable supreme court experiences. In this case—in which the supreme court was “considering the constitutionality of a law enacted by the state,” and “the different branches were pitted against each other”—Justice Bell declared he found it “rewarding to see government work the way it’s supposed to work”: the court ruled that the law violated the separation of powers, and “the other branches respected this ruling.” Referring to recent global events that led to the wholesale arrest of a nation’s judges and lawyers, Justice Bell noted that, in the U.S., “We sometimes take for granted the peaceful resolution of disputes in emotionally-charged situations. We as Americans do have respect for the different functions of the branches, and it is compelling to see the respect that we have for our form of government. Maintaining this respect is one reason courts have to be so careful in using their judicial power,” he added.
Justice Bell, like Justice Cantero, decided to leave the supreme court bench for family reasons. Also like Justice Cantero, he noted that he tended to feel “separated” as a justice, “defined by my position,” and that he didn’t really feel comfortable “being deferred to.” On the other hand, by returning to Pensacola, where his family has resided for seven generations, he will once again be known just as “Kenny” or by his relational identity—as “Dr. Bell’s son, Brad’s dad,” and the like—which “keeps my feet on the ground,” he affirmed. Since leaving the supreme court, he has become a partner with Clark Partington Hart Larry Bond & Stackhouse, where he specializes in eminent domain and condemnation, real estate transactions and real property development, arbitration and mediation, commercial litigation, and appellate work.
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
Justice Cantero was at no loss for words when asked to share some of his favorite or most interesting memories and experiences from his six years on the bench. Not surprisingly, for this erstwhile college English major who is known for his exceptional legal writing skills, one of the judicial occupations he most treasured was writing opinions. But he described his favorite part of the job as the entire “decision-making process”—from the preparations for oral argument, to the interactions with fellow justices and attorneys during OA, to the writing of opinions. What he especially enjoyed about this process, he revealed, is its intellectually-invigorating nature: “You go into it thinking one way, but then after listening to your colleagues and the lawyers, you find yourself thinking another way.” Writing opinions can have the same effect: through the act of writing, “You often end up thinking differently.” And this—all the listening and thinking and analyzing and mind-stretching involved in “the process of trying to reach the right decision”—is precisely what inspired Justice Cantero to want to become a judge and what he believes he will miss the most now that he has left the bench.
The Terri Schiavo case, which was the first “really big case” after his appointment to the bench, also continues to figure among his most powerful memories. What made the deepest impression on him was “how the court dealt with this case.” Though clearly addressing a very controversial and “passionate subject,” his colleagues, at all times, “deliberated the case dispassionately,” maintaining their focus on their “duty under the law and under the constitution.” They did not make the case personal, nor did they take anything personally. “I was impressed with the way the court works,” he asserted, “and felt proud to be a justice.”
Justice Cantero noted some of the many ways in which his time on the bench changed him and helped him grow. Foremost on the list was that he “developed interpersonal skills—especially the art of arguing dispassionately and of being able to convince my colleagues at the same time as being open to being convinced by them.” He quickly realized that he had to learn how to “work together constantly and with collegiality” with his fellow justices—and once again emphasized (with appreciation and almost a tinge, still, of surprise) that any differences of opinion are “not personal” and that no one takes them personally. Being on the bench also gave him a chance to hone his leadership skills, teaching him how to work with people who look up to him because of his position and how to motivate people in a positive way. In addition, as a justice, he developed a profound gratitude for “all the people in the background who work so hard—without much appreciation and for so little pay”—to make the court system work. He specifically singled out OSCA staff and the supreme court staff attorneys for their professionalism and commitment. The dedication of our court personnel “made me proud to be associated with the judicial branch,” he underlined.
Being a supreme court justice also gave him the unanticipated pleasure of discovering that he was an important role model for young people. As a justice, he had a chance to travel all around the state to speak with all sorts of different groups, especially students—law students, college students, high school students, as well as younger kids. These students “are so happy and impressed to get a chance to meet a justice of the supreme court and to learn more about the justice system.” He described one particularly gratifying meeting. A group of University of Florida students was visiting the court during oral argument, and, at the midmorning break, the marshal approached Justice Cantero, saying that one of the students wanted to speak to him. The student, it turned out, was Cuban-born and had been in the States only about three years, yet he had been working hard and received a scholarship to attend UF. “This student was so proud to see a Cuban on the High Court”—an experience that made him decide that he too would like to become a lawyer and could himself aspire to become a judge some day, Justice Cantero said, adding, “This experience struck home for me how important it is for all Hispanics that we have a Hispanic on the court so that other Hispanics can know that it is within reach for everybody.” As a supreme court justice, he truly relished having the ability to inspire young people to reach high, and he took this responsibility very seriously.
He also takes very seriously his responsibility to his family, which was his primary reason for leaving the court. Moreover, he indicated that he missed the camaraderie of practicing law and working on committees: “As a judge, you’re distanced from that; and as a justice, that distance is exaggerated even more,” he pointed out. Being a justice, he mused, is a somewhat “lonely” profession, and he commented on “the isolation we experience here; as we only have six colleagues, there’s not much opportunity to interact with others.” He admitted that he was “not comfortable being called ‘justice,’” and although he “tried hard to get people to call him ‘Raoul’ when not at the court, it was nearly impossible,” he said with an almost wistful laugh.
Justice Cantero has returned to Miami and is now a partner in the international law firm White and Case, where he heads up the Miami Appellate Practice group. He looks forward to being able to spend more time with his family—and possibly to doing some fiction writing again, a hobby he had to put aside for awhile. In fact, he confessed to having recently bought a book on fiction writing and plans “to reeducate myself about it,” naming Graham Greene, Robert Penn Warren, Ernest Hemingway, and Harper Lee as his favorite authorial role models. And although he is no longer a justice, he emphasized his commitment to remaining “an advocate for the branch” and to working to ensure that the justice system receive adequate funding so that it can continue fulfilling its weighty mission.
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
Although he has been on the bench since 2002, Justice C. Alan Lawson, the supreme court’s newest member (since December 31, 2016), did not always want to be a judge: “It wasn’t something that I started my career wanting to do,” he admitted, when asked what drew him to this calling. Indeed, he practiced law for many years before he felt impelled to apply for a judgeship: “I really was drawn to a trial practice, the courtroom setting, litigation—that’s what I was interested in when I decided to become a lawyer,” he disclosed, and he wasn’t actively looking to make any changes.
But as he was approaching his fifteenth year of legal practice, even though he relished the dynamics and stimulation of the daily life of an attorney, he started to see the “great appeal” of being a judge: “It is such an important position: when you spend a lot of time in the courtroom and observe many different kinds of judges, you see what a difference it makes for litigants. Also, I was interested in public service. And I thought I would do the job well.” So, for all these reasons, when a vacancy opened up in the Ninth Judicial Circuit in 2001, he was ready to apply.
He was appointed to the position and soon began to savor the variety and texture of the work of a trial court judge. In his four years at the Ninth (2002 – 2005), he served in the felony division but also handled some civil and some business court cases; in addition, for a year, he was the drug court judge, which he called “a really good experience.” About his service on the trial court bench, he reminisced, “I really enjoyed the interaction with the lawyers and litigants in the courtroom; I liked the excitement of the courtroom.”
After having been a circuit judge for several years, he was prodded by a judge friend to consider applying for an opening on the Fifth District Court of Appeal (DCA). But Justice Lawson was reluctant: “I just didn’t know if I’d enjoy the isolation and the amount of research and writing that you do as an appellate judge,” he explained. At the same time, however, he realized that it was something he’d “like to do eventually.” Because vacancies on the DCAs are so rare—and because candidates typically end up having to apply multiple times anyway—he figured he’d apply for that seat. He doubted he’d be selected, but at least “I’d get my name out there,” he figured. Needless to say, “It was a little bit of surprise” when he was offered the job.
Transitioning from a trial court to a DCA culture is a significant shift for a judge. Trial court judges preside over cases individually, focusing on discovering the facts, which they or a jury determine after listening to the evidence presented by both sides; they are the sole decision-makers on the legal issues that arise and, at times, decide the outcome of the case. The work of a DCA judge is very different: typically working in panels of three, DCA judges are responsible for reviewing the material from the original trial to determine whether the lower tribunal made any legal errors; their focus is on questions of law, not questions of fact. So it is no surprise that, in his early days on the DCA, Justice Lawson “missed the day-in and day-out activity in the courtroom and the interaction with lawyers and other judges.” But he quickly added that he also “thoroughly enjoyed being a DCA judge”: he had “great colleagues” at the Fifth, and—particularly in retrospect—he treasured “the pace” of the work at the DCA: he appreciated having time “to dig into cases before oral argument or before you conferenced,” he reflected.
After serving on the Fifth DCA for 11 years (2006 – 2016), Justice Lawson was appointed to the supreme court. Asked what he especially likes about being a justice, he mused, “There are so many good things the judicial branch is doing, so many great projects to get involved with.” And being a justice gives him an opportunity to consider “Where can I help the most,” he said. His first thought (which was shaped, no doubt, by his years as a trial court judge) was problem-solving courts—drug court, veterans court, mental health court, early childhood court—which he called “great innovations.” For instance, through intensive judicial supervision, mandatory substance abuse treatment, and drug-testing (with escalating sanctions and incentives), drug court is designed to break the cycle of drug addiction and concomitant crime—and to turn defendants into productive, law-abiding citizens. “If we can improve society by helping an individual tackle their addiction, then we’re doing a greater good than we did in the past, which was to respond to addiction with incarceration and probation,” he emphasized.
Another project about which he’s passionate is civics education—programs like Justice Teaching (the law-related education initiative founded by Justice Lewis). “These are so important,” he stressed: “If we’re going to continue to enjoy the freedom that we have in our country, then is it more important that we teach every kid things like calculus and higher math? Or is it more essential that they understand basic civics and why we have the freedoms we have? Given the lack of civics education today, I don’t think that kids really understand what the alternative is—they don’t understand what most of the rest of the kids growing up in the world face and have faced throughout human history. We enjoy an unparalleled degree of freedom in this country. If we don’t teach our kids why our structure of government is so important and why we have these freedoms and who paid the price to make sure that we do—and if the next generation doesn’t appreciate what we have—then it would be easy to discard our freedoms unknowingly. That is why civics education is so critical.”
Being on the supreme court certainly gives Justice Lawson the opportunity to do much good. However, he conceded that the job also comes with a fair amount of pressure: “My stress level is noticeably higher since I’m on the supreme court,” he said half-jokingly. Even though he has occupied this seat for a little more than half a year now, he feels he’s still getting used to the quantity of cases, the complexity of the cases, and the overall tempo of the workload—which, he remarked, never really slows down, given the convenience and flexibility of electronic filing. In addition, on top of all the case-related demands, now that he’s a justice, he frequently receives invitations to speak to various groups of judges and lawyers, as well as to the school and leadership groups that regularly visit the supreme court. He’s a skillful and compelling speaker—and he enjoys these speaking engagements and knows how important they are—but they take a lot of preparation: “You need to carve out time to think about what to say to hopefully inspire and do a good job” with these audiences. In short, he declared, “You’re ‘on’ all the time in this job.”
Thus he recognizes that he needs to “take time to recuperate and recharge” whenever possible. To de-stress, he paddle boards and scuba dives with his wife when he can, and he visits with his grandchildren (twins, born in November). Reading also helps him relax: he enjoys a broad variety of fiction (he named Grisham, Patterson, Silva, and the Harry Potter books), but he also likes to read books on leadership and personal development as well as some devotional kinds of books—“I usually am reading four or five books of various kinds at a time,” he noted. Reading about Elon Musk—the inventor, engineer, and product architect at Tesla—has been especially inspiring to him lately; he explained that “When Musk approaches a project, he asks not ‘How can we make things incrementally better,’ but ‘Is there a way we can make something radically better?’” This has prompted Justice Lawson to wonder whether “there are things the judicial branch could do to radically improve something while cutting costs.”
Another “great stress reliever” for him is running: “This morning, I got up early and did a great five-mile run and came in refreshed and ready for oral argument at 9:00,” he reported. Indeed, when in Tallahassee, this FSU College of Law graduate runs the same route he ran when he was in law school. In addition to calming stress, he finds running a clarifying experience, for it provides him with “great ‘thought time’ for processing difficult issues.” Running is “grounding” for him in every sense of the word.
He is also very much “grounded” in Florida: “My grandmother was the first child born in Lake Butler, Florida, at the turn of the last century—on January 3, 1900. Her father was a state representative. And my grandfather was on the school board in what is now Bradford County. My father was also from that area; he served as an aide to the president of the senate when he was in college.” He proudly commented that his “wife Julie is also a multi-generational Floridian,” adding that “Her mother served in the state legislature and was also the first female president of the University of Florida Alumni Association.”
This deep-rooted Floridian admits that “I have a lot to learn” about being a supreme court justice. And he understands that it will take time to understand the many expectations and nuances of the office. But he is clearly embarking on this journey with the same meticulousness, discipline, and dedication that he has brought to all the other undertakings that he has embraced as he’s staked out his path.
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
“Life is strange,” reflected Justice Perry, with a chuckle, when asked about the odyssey that brought him to the supreme court bench. “I never had a master plan,” he began; “I never planned for anything. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how it would be achieved. I just knew I wanted to do something positive—be of public service.” Through a series of remarkable flukes, fortuities, chance encounters, and contingencies, Justice Perry eventually found himself appointed to Florida’s highest court this March.
Justice Perry’s story began unassumingly, in the projects of New Bern, North Carolina, where he was born and raised. College was the first major life experience for which he didn’t plan. In high school, he had strong grades and had been involved in a number of extracurricular activities—captain of the football and basketball teams, a member of the chorus; he had even been voted “Best All-Around” by his high school class. But none of his teachers had ever mentioned his going to college—and he knew he couldn’t afford it anyway—so he had no thought of going. But, within days of graduation, a college football coach from Raleigh showed up at his school and invited him to play; if not for that visit—and the award of a student loan—Justice Perry would have ended up with a dramatically different autobiography.
He also hadn’t intended to join the Army, but he was drafted soon after he graduated from college; he went to officer candidate school, got a commission, and was eventually promoted to first lieutenant.
And not for a moment did he imagine that law school was in his future—in fact, his undergraduate degree was in business administration. But his life changed, again unexpectedly, on April 4, 1968. That was the evening that Martin Luther King was assassinated. The chilling announcement of King’s murder set off, in his head, a recitation of “the litany of dead black men.” Gone were so many of the nation’s black leaders, he lamented. Most black male leaders have been preachers, but it’s the lawyers who’ve become our nation’s legislators and executive officers, he found himself thinking. King’s death, a wake-up call, prompted his decision to go to law school—“because I realized that lawyers understand the system and know how to change it.” Although he was intending to go to law school at Case Western Reserve, an unexpected encounter with the friend of a fraternity brother motivated him to apply to Columbia University School of Law—so that’s where he ended up.
Soon before finishing law school, he was called into the dean’s office. “Why not work on Wall Street, the dean asked; the money is good.” But Justice Perry wasn’t interested in the money. The dean was undoubtedly surprised when Justice Perry announced, “I want to go back to the South to fight for justice.”
For a change, he did have a concrete plan this time—he intended to return to North Carolina to take the bar exam and “fight for justice” in his home state. But life apparently had different plans for him. It was now the early 70s; racial tensions were high, and rarely were minorities allowed entrance into the legal profession. Despite his efforts, it soon became clear that he was not going to be able to practice law in North Carolina—or South Carolina or Georgia—the three states in which he tried to work. While in Georgia, which had only 38 black attorneys at the time, he was part of a class action suit challenging the Georgia bar admissions process. Although this suit was unsuccessful, shortly thereafter, the bar began to admit more African-Americans (35 blacks, including Justice Perry, passed the bar within the following year).
Next, he headed up to Washington, D.C. Soon after his arrival, he ran into a friend of a friend, who offered him a job as an attorney in Florida. Justice Perry readily admitted that he had no interest in moving to Florida at that time. Then, another intervention caused his plans to change: it started to snow. Snowstorms have been known to inspire epiphanies. “I’ll go to Florida,” he decided. He took the Florida Bar Exam, passed it, and has been here ever since.
After all this, it should come as no surprise that Justice Perry had not envisioned becoming a judge. He had applied for appointment in 1990 and 1993, when the Eighteenth Circuit had vacancies, but the Judicial Nominating Commission passed over him both times. As a result, he figured he’d never be selected, so he waited until the last possible day to apply in 2000—admitting, “I was shocked that I was picked.” He became the first black circuit judge in the Eighteenth Circuit.
The thought of applying for the supreme court opening “was not even on my radar screen,” he confessed. He had run for his circuit seat unopposed six years earlier and really was happy where he was; “I wasn’t looking to go anywhere,” he avowed. But friends urged him to apply for the vacancy created by Justice Wells’ retirement: “It’s really not about you—it’s about the people of the state of Florida,” they told him. So he relented, and in January, he applied; to his surprise, Governor Crist selected him for the seat.
He’s enjoying being a justice. An avid reader who especially savors historical works (“You learn a lot by looking back; things happen in cycles”), he’s relishing the mountains of reading that his new position entails. And he’s quickly adjusting to the appellate experience. To this self-described “people-person,” being a trial court judge is “solitary,” “very lonely.” At the supreme court, however, “You’re forced to meet and interact with the other justices, so it’s less solitary. The supreme court family is smaller than the circuit family,” he added, “but it’s very intense; it’s very different making decisions with six other people.” Here, one quickly learns that “Good people don’t always agree—but they can disagree without being disagreeable. Sometimes, I don’t even agree with myself!” he joshed.
“My passion is children…especially at-risk kids,” Justice Perry asserted when asked how he hoped to make his mark on the supreme court. His commitment to children is one of the reasons he assigned himself drug court when he was chief judge at the Eighteenth. Most of the people participating in drug court are “young parents, often with kids, so you end up dealing a lot with families.” He said that being a drug court judge was “the most important thing I’ve ever done” because he was able to “help people put their lives back together. When they finish the 18-month program and tell you, ‘You saved my life’—it doesn’t get any better than that!” he declared.
But, “It takes a certain kind of person to be a judge, especially a drug court judge,” he ruminated. Being a parent is good preparation, he believes, because, “When you have kids, you understand that no two people are alike; people can’t be treated the same.” Parenting—and Justice Perry’s the father of three—teaches a person “flexibility, open-mindedness, the ability to take in different views”—which, for him, is the definition of intelligence. Many people have knowledge, he mused, but intelligence is uncommon. “As for common sense,” he exclaimed, “it’s not common at all. They should call it rare sense!”
Journeying map-lessly from the projects of New Bern, North Carolina, to the Supreme Court of Florida, this man who “never had a master plan” is thrilled about this chance to serve the public in a new way. “I like, I enjoy, people, he emphasized: “Public service is what I’m about.”
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
“It is the ultimate honor any lawyer can have,” Justice Labarga proclaimed when asked what inspired him to become a judge. As for being a supreme court justice, that’s “the ultimate honor for any judge. I keep waiting for someone to come here and say to me, What are you doing here?” he exclaimed half-jokingly, allowing that he sometimes has to pinch himself to make sure it’s all real.
But, in some ways, Justice Labarga has been preparing for and traveling toward this summit all his adult life: after receiving his law degree in 1979, he spent three years as an assistant public defender, five years as an assistant state attorney, and nine years in private practice, all in the Fifteenth Circuit, before Governor Lawton Chiles appointed him to the circuit bench in 1996, where he served until Governor Charlie Crist recently selected him for the supreme court. His journey is a stirring example of the American Dream come true for the man who, as a young boy, ventured with his family from Havana, Cuba, to Pahokee, Florida.
Reflecting on his transition from the trial court to the supreme court, Justice Labarga remarked that he is experiencing some dramatic differences both in what he does and how he does it. For instance, as is typical for a trial court judge, “I made decisions by myself before; there was no one to go to to discuss these decisions with. But,” he quickly interjected, “I am so happy to be here, with six others—dedicated, intelligent people thinking about these issues as well; I enjoy hearing what they say and find it very helpful.” Thinking back to his first supreme court conference, he said he remembers watching the justices methodically present their cases to the rest of the supreme court—how thoughtfully prepared they were about the most intricate details of the case: “There are very bright people here in this building,” he added, saying that his work as a justice is so “all-consuming,” “so challenging and satisfying,” that he daily looks forward to it.
He anticipates that he’ll miss some aspects of being a trial court judge—especially “the direct contact with people, the direct contact with lawyers, on a daily basis”—for that was a source of great pleasure for him for the last 28 years. The truth of this statement became especially evident when he began talking about some of the people, especially the young people, who came before his bench and about the positive changes he witnessed after they got a chance to get their lives “back on track.” As he shared his anecdotes, it became infinitely clear just how dearly he loves this chance to do public service.
Justice Labarga believes that his judicial skills have been deepened by his experience of parenting his two daughters: “Having been a parent, I know how important it is to be able to appreciate that someone’s not just the young criminal being portrayed by law enforcement and the prosecutors. We also need to see that person as someone’s son, someone’s grandson, the kid who mowed our yard. There’s a big need to keep things in perspective…and to see the human being,” he emphasized, adding, “The person who wears the black robe must have a high level of compassion.”
He would most likely agree that his judicial skills have also been shaped, in part, by his passion for “speaking to people, trying to know how they are feeling.” Therefore, this self-proclaimed “people-person” expects to do a great bit of walking—both in the supreme court building and in downtown Tallahassee—because walking gives him a chance to talk to people. (In fact, the author first met Justice Labarga, who at the time was still quite new to the supreme court, while he was circumnavigating the second floor, trying to get a sense of the layout of the building and the location of the various OSCA units.) His daily peregrinations and his facility for engaging the people he meets will help keep him “grounded,” he imagines.
He also enjoys giving talks to groups of people, and that’s one of the aspects of being a judge that he looks forward to continuing while on the supreme court. He relishes the chance to talk to lawyers in a seminar setting, but he particularly loves talking to school-age kids, especially high schoolers. “Teenagers have access to so much information because of the Internet and TV,” he noted; “It’s difficult to parent them because they already know everything.” But he tries to remember never to preach to them—“that turns them off immediately”—and to “use real life examples” when he’s trying to make a point. Most important, he stressed, you need to listen to them.
When talking to young people, he frequently gets asked what they should major in to become a lawyer. Without reservation, he urges them to major in English. He tells them, “Lawyers are constantly writing and reading, so being an English major will provide you with the most valuable skills.” In fact, he’s delighted that one of his daughters is majoring in English in college: “I love that she wants to be a teacher,” he averred. Not surprisingly, like most avid readers and writers, Justice Labarga has an unforgettable English teacher in his remote past: “Whatever writing skills I have, she is responsible for,” he said of Miss Perry Jerry, with whom he studied in eleventh grade. He especially remembers that she used to write a famous quotation on the board each day, and her students had to memorize 10 of them for each test. As a result, he still has a treasury of compelling and relevant quotations percolating in his head.
Justice Labarga’s wife and daughters still live in Palm Beach County, and he misses them profoundly, but he’s delighted to be in Tallahassee and professed that both he and his wife love it and find it very beautiful. As he said this, he gestured toward the glorious oaks that are framed by his window—colossal, stately trees that he believes are about 300 years old. At this point, the only matter that might temper the joy of this “double Gator” (he received both his B.A. and his law degree from the University of Florida) is that, with the retirement of Justice Wells, Justice Labarga is the only Gator on the Florida Supreme Court.
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
While Justice Canady had to journey a few hundred miles from Lakeland to Tallahassee to pursue this new stage in his judicial trajectory, Justice Polston merely had to take a few hundred steps to embark upon his new path (for the information of those who’ve never visited Tallahassee, the supreme court is diagonally across the street from the First DCA, from where Judge Polston ventured). Justice Polston credits being able to “stay home,” literally, with facilitating his transition to the supreme court. Also making the transition relatively easy is his deep connection to the Tallahassee community (which began with his college education, for he got his B.S. and his J.D. at Florida State University) and his familiarity with many of the trial and appellate judges and the local attorneys.
As a result, Justice Polston’s physical move from the DCA to the supreme court has been only nominally disruptive for him and his family. Nor has he reason to anticipate any startling professional changes with this move: when asked about the ways in which he thinks his work will be different from his work as a DCA judge, he noted that since he has been an appellate judge since 2001, he doesn’t see “a dramatic difference in coming here.” With the exception of death penalty cases, he observed, a significant number of the kinds of cases he will be working on at the supreme court—“cases of a constitutional nature and all kinds of criminal cases”—he has already worked on at the DCA. Consequently, he said, “I expect more similarities than differences; the differences,” he imagines, “will be in nuance.”
Unlike most judges, Justice Polston did not begin his professional career as an attorney. In fact, he received his B.S. in accounting in 1977 and launched into an energetic accounting career fresh out of college. It wasn’t until nine years later that he received his law degree. “I enjoyed the practice of accounting,” he explained (in fact, he is still a licensed CPA). But he developed an interest in law while in accounting: “I’d taken business law courses in college and worked with a lot of lawyers as an accountant,” he remarked, so his burgeoning interest in law had a sense of inevitability. Although some areas of the law, like transactional work, are natural choices for someone with an accounting background, he found himself predisposed to litigation, which was quite a departure from his first career.
Therefore, after he was appointed to the First DCA in 2001, he was delighted to discover some exciting parallels between being an appellate judge and being an accountant—“They are more similar than you’d think,” he suggested. Both professions are intensely analytical, for instance. As an appellate judge, he declared, “I enjoy having a problem presented through a case and then reviewing and analyzing the law to arrive at an answer through an analytical process. And the intellectual process you go through in accounting is very much the same,” he added: “You begin with a problem. You apply the principles of accounting to a set of facts and then present what you have concisely.”
Many people don’t grasp the parallels because they may not realize that “Accounting is more than just bookkeeping,” he pointed out. Like being a judge, being an accountant is “not an exact science; it involves a lot of theory, and accountants have to use their professional judgment in applying principles” to a situation. The writing styles are considerably different, he admitted—the writing in accounting is extremely succinct, more outline-like in form, while, in appellate writing, a judge is expected to write comprehensive, coherent narratives. Regardless, “The thought process behind the two professions is very similar,” and this is what couples them in a fascinating way for him.
Nonetheless, what becomes immediately and abundantly clear is that Justice Polston truly relishes his judicial calling: “I love being an appellate judge,” he exclaimed. He especially enjoys the “academic nature” of being on the appellate bench—the “reading, writing, researching”; the chance “to hear intellectually-challenging cases.” Although he thinks it’s still too early for him to sense how he might make his mark on the supreme court, he is grateful for this “opportunity to contribute to the court” and seeks “to do a good job by writing good opinions in a timely manner.”
And, when not on the bench, Justice Polston looks forward to savoring his usual household recreations: lots of play time at home, in the yard, with his six boys—most typically in activities that involve “any kind of ball.” Also on the domestic docket will be plenty of trips to the Tallahassee Museum, a natural habitat zoo where he and his family love to spend hours exploring the wildlife and cultural history of the Big Bend.
By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
From private practice to the Florida House to the U.S. House to general counsel for Governor Bush to the Second DCA to the Florida Supreme Court—Justice Canady’s professional life has certainly travelled a remarkable and almost breathless orbit. “It means I can’t keep a job!” he joked when first asked about his rare history of having served in so many capacities and in all three branches. But, for him, being a judge is “the perfect job”: “I have always loved the law and had an interest in public service,” he revealed, and he sees being a judge as the best opportunity for marrying these two pursuits. In fact, when he began his judicial career with the Second DCA, back in 2002, he realized it was his ideal job: in his words, “I finally figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up!”
But Justice Canady didn’t always want to be a judge. When he graduated from law school in 1979 and went into private practice, being a judge didn’t even occur to him. In those days, the Lakeland-born attorney was primarily interested in real estate law. But his interests eventually grew to include legislation, which led to his service as a legislator in the Florida House from 1984-1990. Setting his sight a bit higher, he then ran for a Florida Senate seat in 1990—but was defeated. Not in the least perturbed about this loss, he quickly pointed out that “Sometimes losing is the best thing that can happen,” for, “In losing the race for the Florida Senate, it opened the door for me to run for the U.S. Congress”—a position he occupied for four terms (from January 1993 to January 2001).
While a member of the U.S. House, he served on the House Judiciary Committee, which got him interested in appellate work, and the rest of his career path unfurled with a kind of inevitability: returning to Florida after his stint in Congress, he came directly to Tallahassee to serve as Governor Bush’s general counsel for two years and, from that position, was appointed to the Second DCA, which gave him a chance to go back to his home in Lakeland. Now, six years later, here he is, back in Tallahassee—this time, of course, with the third branch. Commenting on his having served in all three branches, he reflected, “This experience has given me a different perspective on the separation of powers,” noting that “This perspective is part of what I bring to the supreme court” and that it “hopefully will be useful in my job here.” He then added, with emphasis, “I am very grateful to be here.”
Regarding his move to the supreme court from the DCA, Justice Canady doesn’t anticipate any fundamental changes in what he’ll be doing. He did name some differences, however. For instance, much of his time will now be spent on death cases, and bar discipline cases too “are within the unique province of this court.” But, for the most part, the “structure of the work” will not be particularly dissimilar: his days will continue to involve “reading briefs, preparing for oral argument, going to oral argument, writing opinions…yes, lots of reading and writing.”
Fortunately, like so many appellate judges, Justice Canady has a passion for writing—and can prove it. When asked whether he has always liked to write, magician-like, he pulled an enormous tome out from under his desk—an abridged Oxford English Dictionary (for which even the abridged version is a prodigious volume)—and indicated that that should give people an idea of how he likes to spend his time.
He can even trace his love of writing to a particular period in time: high school, specifically twelfth grade, when a certain Mrs. Clara Hirshfield was his English teacher. Mrs. Hirshfield “understood that one of the most important things to teach students is how to write an essay,” Justice Canady recalled. For one full class period each week, in fact, she would require all her students to write an essay. After receiving that week’s topic, students were expected to spend the entire period constructing the clearest, most coherent essay they could. This was “excellent preparation for taking college exams and other writing tasks in my professional life, certainly as a judge,” Justice Canady mused, decisively adding, “I can think of nothing in my education that was more valuable than those days in that class”—sentiments that should thrill the hearts of English teachers across the globe.
These days, however, “aside from deciding cases that need deciding and keeping the docket moving,” Justice Canady’s “primary concern is funding for the courts,” calling it “a very challenging issue for the court system—and all of state government” and saying, “My energies will be devoted to doing what I can to keep the administration of justice in Florida strong as we’re going through this very challenging time.”
And when he’s not at work? Justice Canady’s favorite activities involve spending time with his two young children: “I like to read to them and take walks with them—when I can talk them into it.” He and his family loved Tallahassee when they first lived here six years ago and are excited about the opportunity to explore its many charms all over again.