Legendary Florida lawyer Wm. Reece Smith, Jr., died on January 11, less than a month before he was scheduled to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Florida Supreme Court Historical Society. He was 87.
His friend and fellow former ABA President Martha Barnett said it was fitting the last award Smith received was from the society, “giving new meaning to the old cliché that maybe, just maybe, we saved the best for last.”
Barnett told those attending the FSCHS’s annual dinner in Tallahassee that Smith knew he was to receive the award.
“I’m told that at his bedside, as they read the words on the plaque, they were rewarded with one of his thin-lipped, quiet smiles and his twinkling eyes,” she said.
Barnett said it is an understatement to say Smith was an active member of the Bar, as he is the only American lawyer to have been president of a local bar, a state bar, the ABA, and the International Bar Association.
“He did not use the power that comes from those positions for personal ambitions, but rather to give meaning to the rule of law,” said Barnett, noting that in 1981 Smith helped save the Legal Services Corporation from extinction, which defined his ABA presidency.
“If not for Reece Smith, there may not be a federally funded program for legal service to the poor,” she said.
Smith understood the promise of equal access to justice only has meaning if it is “equal justice for all, especially for those who could not afford to pay for it,” Barnett said.
The life and contributions of Justice Ben Overton were also remembered at the FSCHS dinner. Overton passed away December 29 in Gainesville of complications from heart surgery. He was 86 and had spent 25 years on the Supreme Court.
Stephen Grimes, who served with Overton on the high court for 12 years and was his neighbor in Tallahassee, said the most significant event in Overton’s professional life was when Gov. Askew appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1974, after it earlier had become involved in scandal. He was the first justice chosen through the merit selection process created by Askew that soon was added to the Florida Constitution.
From his appointment until his retirement in 1999, Overton authored more than 1,400 decisions and was a central figure in a vast series of reforms that made his court one of the most respected and accessible in the nation.
“Gov. Askew told Ben, ‘I want you to go up and clean up the Supreme Court,’” Grimes said. “And he did.”
Grimes said Overton not only helped restore the integrity and reputation of the court, but also helped make Florida one of the first states to allow television coverage of court cases and was instrumental in making the Florida Supreme Court one of the first in the world to have a website.
“He was the kind of guy who saw a problem, and he would get it done,” Grimes said.