A champion for judicial independence, Gov. Askew received FSCHS’s Lifetime Achievement Award
By Mark D. Killian
Recognized as the architect of Florida’s merit selection system, former Gov. Reubin Askew was honored by the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
In introducing Gov. Askew to the hundreds of lawyers and judges gathered for the FSCHS’s annual dinner in Tallahassee in February, former Gov. Bob Graham called Askew a model “of courage and high values” who came onto Florida’s political stage at “precisely the time he was needed most.”
“He became the education governor. He became the environmental governor. He led in reform of our health institutions,” said Graham, who followed Askew into the governor’s mansion and also served in the U.S. Senate. “But the thing for which he will be best known will be his leadership for an independent judiciary.”
Graham said Askew became governor in the early ’70s in the shadow of the worst scandal in the history of the Florida Supreme Court, when corruption and cronyism charges ended up costing two justices their jobs.
While the scandal tarnished the court’s reputation, Graham said Askew also saw it as an opportunity, and in 1971 gave up the governor’s unilateral power to fill mid-term judicial vacancies in favor of a judicial nominating commission process, which was eventually included in the Florida Constitution. Askew also championed the 1976 constitutional amendment that ended direct, contested elections for the appellate bench, instead substituting a merit selection and retention system.
In accepting the award, Askew — the state’s , serving from 1971 to 1979 — said he spent more time on judicial reform than any other issue.
“Why? Because it was the most critical,” Askew said.
Askew, who was elected to the Florida House in 1958 and the Florida Senate in 1962, said people who expect to be free expect something “that never was and never will be” without a strong independent judiciary.
Askew, 84, said this past November’s balloting, which saw three Supreme Court justices survive an organized effort to oust them and the defeat of a “terrible constitutional amendment” that would have required Senate confirmation of the governor’s Supreme Court appointments, made it easier for the Legislature to revoke court procedural rules, and given the speaker of the House broader access to investigation files of the JQC was “one of the most important” elections of his lifetime.
“I was so happy, I don’t know what to say,” said Askew, adding that he thinks the people of Florida perceived a threat and stood up to protect their rights.
“It was such a wonderful feeling.”
“If you are looking to protect your rights, don’t look to the executive; don’t look to the legislative; look to the courts and the judiciary because they are the only ones who will stand up for absolute fairness,” Askew said.
Graham also addressed the most recent election, saying the defeated amendment, if passed, would have “permanently shifted the balance among the three branches of government, leaving the judiciary as a distinctly unequal branch of our government.”
The battle to maintain judicial independence never ends, “because there are always going to be forces which see a judiciary that renders, ultimately, judgment on our laws as an institution they wish to pervert for their own purposes,” Graham said.
“I’ve never been prouder of the people of Florida when, by an overwhelming margin, they returned those three justices to their positions and defeated that constitutional amendment,” Graham said.
FSCHS President Hank Coxe of Jacksonville said all three branches were enhanced during the decades Askew was in power, including his push to modernize Florida’s 1885 constitution as a member of the Constitution Revision Commission in 1966-67.
“As governor, he implemented the corporate income tax, upon which he campaigned in 1970; reorganized the budgetary responsibility of the state under the Department of Administration; created meaningful and enforceable environmental controls; helped create limitations on campaign spending and effective financial disclosure for all public officials; created an ethics commission; and reformed the prison system,” Coxe said.
Coxe said Askew also created the statewide juvenile justice system; supported school ; appointed Joe Hatchett as the first black justice of the Supreme Court; appointed , a black woman, secretary of the Department of Community Affairs; and named , secretary of state, the first black man to hold Florida Cabinet position since reconstruction.
“Racial justice and honesty in government were the hallmarks of his governorship,” Coxe said.
After leaving the governor’s office and an unsucessful run for president, Askew went on to serve as an ambassador under President Jimmy Carter and practiced law. He also spent the past 23 years teaching graduate-level courses at Florida’s universities. The at is named for him. Askew said he explored teaching as a way to keep young people from becoming cynical.
“I’ll tell you what; we have students that are interested and all they are doing is looking for a little bit of encouragement,” Askew said.
In his classes, Askew often discusses Marbury v. Madison “because it shows the human dynamic in reaching appellate decisions, but it also says clearly that the supreme law of the land is — in practicality, as it should be — in the independence of the judiciary.”
Askew said the battle to maintain judiciary independence is an ongoing struggle.
“The fight is not over,” Askew said. “And I’ve got just a little bit of fight left in me.”