by John F. Harkness, Jr.
Described by those who knew him as a “lawyer’s lawyer,” Robert M. Ervin, former president of The Florida Bar (1965-1966), died on February 5.
Bob was born in Marion County and grew up in Tallahassee. After receiving his B.S. in business administration in 1941, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served in the Pacific during World War II. Prior to his departure for service, he married Frances Anne Cushing, his wife until her death in 2007. After the war, he received his law degree from the University of Florida College of Law and returned to Tallahassee where he formed Ervin, Varn, Jacobs, Odom & Ervin in 1947 (now Ervin, Kitchen & Ervin). He remained “of counsel” with the firm until 2009. His brother, Richard Ervin, former attorney general and Florida Supreme Court justice, worked at the firm after he turned 70 years old, the mandatory retirement age for judges. Dick Ervin died in 2004.
Bob Ervin was an early advocate of serving the poor and was instrumental in the creation of the Legal Aid Committee of the Tallahassee Bar Association. He recognized the importance of the President’s War on Poverty, Legal Services for Poor, and said, “Regardless of individual views as to its merits and desirability, the impact of this program on the legal profession should not be underestimated by any member of The Florida Bar.” A select committee was assigned to provide recommendation to all Florida lawyers “as quickly as possible.”
“The responsibility of The Florida Bar is to the public, the bench and the bar,” wrote Robert M. Ervin in his 1966 report to the membership. During his term, the Client’s Security Fund was established, a program that he hoped to “be successful and serve the purpose of increasing public confidence in the legal profession in this state.”
Bob Ervin served on the Constitutional Revision Commission that was assigned to present a revised version to the 1967 Legislature. Among those serving with him were Chesterfield H. Smith, Justices B. K. Roberts and Stephen O’Connell, Attorney General Earl Faircloth, Judge Thomas Barkdull, Jr., and Senator Reubin Askew. In addressing the commission, he said, “The vast majority of members of the legal profession agree that a growing, progressive, and nationally leading Florida of the future requires a revised constitution…which preserves the protection of the rights of the individual…one which is updated to present day.”
Representing The Florida Bar, he believed the attorney members of the commission would “rise above sectionalism and personal philosophies” and felt certain all Floridians “may look with confidence to the destiny of our state.”
During his term as president, the Florida Supreme Court discharged the duty to prohibit the unlicensed practice of law to The Florida Bar. “The public has a right to be protected against unauthorized practice of law by unqualified persons and it is the goal of our profession and the only motive of The Florida Bar in the program to accord to the public this right.”
The Bar’s continuing legal education program was enhanced during his term, a source of pride for him. “The immediate goal of our Continuing Legal Education Committee is to keep Florida lawyers abreast of developments in the law and in legal techniques, and thus to enable them to render more effective service to the courts and to their clients. Being better lawyers, they improve the administration of justice and advance the science of jurisprudence.”
Bob pointed out that the CLE program was self-sustaining and that its budget (in 1966) of $110,000 was met entirely from the income produced from the program.
In the early days of The Florida Bar Foundation, he was a director and the Foundation’s first fellow. He received the Foundation’s 2003 Medal of Honor for “his dedication to improving the administration of justice and as a leader in fostering programs and institutions that continue today to advance the interests of the public and the legal profession.” I was in the audience that evening and heard William Thompson, Jr., the Foundation’s past president, remark, “Soft spoken and gentle, he is a brilliant strategist, an academic, a formidable advocate, a trusted counselor to clients, and a wise mentor to aspiring lawyers.”
Among his many posts were president of the Tallahassee Bar, The Florida Bar, and the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society. He served for a quarter century as a member of the ABA House of Delegates, chaired the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section, and later served as deputy chair of the special committee that implemented the ABA’s Standards of Criminal Justice, and worked on the adoption of the ABA’s Code of Judicial Conduct. Bob Ervin was a driving force to establish the Bar headquarters building.
The Tallahassee Democrat editor who wrote Bob’s obituary interviewed several attorneys and judges. They commented that he was “beloved for his generous personality.” Judge Patricia A. Seitz of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida summed up our feelings about Robert Ervin: “How blessed we were to have him touch our lives. He will be missed but his spirit will carry on in all the seeds he planted.”