by Eugene K. Pettis
Gathering materials for The Florida Bar Journal’s cover story last July, I came across a 1981 article about me at the University of Florida, in the Independent Alligator newspaper, with the headline, “Black Student Leader Believes in Getting Involved.”
Time has passed, but my focus has not changed. Those who have known me over the past four decades know that my consistent mantra has been encouraging people to get engaged and be part of the solution.
If you have followed my presidency, you know that a common theme has been encouraging others to get involved in our Florida Bar and our surrounding communities. My commitment to these principles has only gotten stronger, as I have seen many examples of the power one person can have in changing society for the better.
A stellar example of the power of one was former Gov. Reubin Askew, a lawyer by training and a servant at heart. In March, when he passed away at the age of 85, we paused and reflected on a life well lived.
He was a man who put self aside and championed ideals good for all of society. He was a leader willing to give up personal power in judicial appointments to establish a judicial merit selection and retention system that gave strength to every Floridian and returned integrity to a critical branch of government: the judiciary.
How refreshing to see a leader whose selfless nature produced such genuine strength — not for himself, but for the people he governed. I admired Gov. Askew because he was able to lead without being put in a predictable box of party politics. Consistently, his initiatives were the people’s issues, not party ideology.
Today, political polls dictate which color attire some public servants must wear. In his day, Gov. Askew simply used his conscience as his moral compass, and he did what was right for all people — including the voiceless and most vulnerable. Few others have impacted Florida the way Gov. Askew did.
Notably, Virgil Hawkins took a stance after he was rejected to attend UF’s racially segregated College of Law in 1949. His perseverance shined a light on the need for higher education fairness for minorities and paved the pathway for many to follow.
In 1947, Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote The Everglades: River of Grass, about the perils of draining the swamp to make way for development, and riveted attention on the imperative of environmental preservation.
And Joseph Hatchett, the first African-American elected to Florida’s highest court since Reconstruction when Gov. Askew appointed him to the Florida Supreme Court in 1975, demonstrated from the bench the importance of diversifying our judiciary.
If I could dictate a lasting legacy of Gov. Askew and the others aforementioned, it is that they let their lives shine as beacons to show the power an individual can have on making society better because he or she lived and served others. They stood on a foundation of fairness and integrity.
As these giant public servants pass, who will step up and take their place? Have we truly embraced the lessons taught by their lives? The answers lie in our daily deeds. The current generation in leadership and society face many defining issues that will test our commitment to fairness.
How do we respond legislatively to the dilemma of José Manuel Godinez-Samperio, brought from Mexico as an innocent 9-year-old child, growing up in America and doing everything right? He excelled scholastically, graduated from a state law school and passed the Florida bar exam, only to be told by the Florida Supreme Court that he is prohibited from admittance to The Florida Bar because he is an unauthorized immigrant. While José’s story is in the news today, I have met many other bright law students who will find themselves in the same situation.
What is our response to diversifying our judicial selection process and the judicial bench to be reflective of the rich diversity of our state?
These are just two examples of many defining issues, and how we respond will have a significant impact.
As Helen Keller said, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
Let’s heed the call and be better servants committed to a more just society.
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