by Annie Butterworth Jones
A mill worker and farmer from the tiny panhandle town of Graceville, Sidney Polston had never witnessed anything quite like the scene unfolding before him.
The cavernous courtroom was packed with political and legal dignitaries, many whom Sidney Polston didn’t recognize. The voices of his son’s 10 children bounced off the room’s walls, the youngest ones completely unaware their father was about to be sworn in as a justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
It was January 27, 2009, when Sidney Polston took a seat beside his son, former First District Court of Appeal Judge Ricky Polston, as they waited for the hour-long investiture ceremony to begin.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Son, do you know very many of the people out here?’ And I looked out, and I said, ‘I think I know every single one of them, and it took every one of them, plus a lot more, to get me here.’ And that was true.”
Sidney Polston, who had left high school to care for the family farm after his oldest brothers were drafted into World War II, had always told his son to work hard, to get his education, and to stay humble. He just couldn’t quite believe that advice had gotten his son this far.
Nearly four years later, the farmer’s son now serves as chief justice of the highest court in the state. His children are bigger and his father has passed, but Ricky Polston’s ideologies have stayed firmly rooted where they were planted many years ago on the family farm in Jackson County. His long and varied career, which spans years of service as a certified public accountant, a commercial litigator, a sole practitioner, an adjunct professor, and an appellate judge, has more than prepared him for his newest duties. Nothing, though, has prepared him nearly as much as his father’s decades of advice on wisdom and work ethic.
“My dad was an extremely hard worker,” said Chief Justice Polston, recalling a visit with his father, who died in December after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s.
“I went to see him one morning, and I told him, after visiting a while, ‘I need to go,’” remembered the justice. “He asked where I was going, and I said, ‘I’ve got to go to work.’
“‘Well, you better go! You better get going!’ he said.
“He understood, even though he was struggling mentally at the time. He was not going to get in my way of going to work.”
The name Polston has long been synonymous with a strong work ethic. It’s the first thing colleagues mention about Polston, who began his career 35 years ago at the growing Tampa office of Deloitte, Haskins & Sells, an international accounting firm. Polston first worked at the firm as a certified public accountant and was a successful audit manager on his way to becoming partner when he decided to attend law school at Florida State University.
“I didn’t leave accounting because I didn’t like it,” Polston, 56, explained. “I just thought I needed to do something more and different with my life.”
His wife, Deborah, understood the decision, but his prudent mother and father were less than thrilled.
“My parents thought I was nuts,” said Polston. “They really struggled with that decision. They certainly supported it, but they questioned why I was doing it.”
The decision may have seemed nonsensical to his parents, but accounting and law had long been parallel paths in Polston’s mind. He was confident his success as an auditor would translate seamlessly into success as an attorney, and ultimately, into his success on the bench.
“As an auditor, you look at financial statements of companies on an objective basis and make an independent evaluation under generally accepted accounting principles, using generally accepted auditing standards,” said Polston. “It’s very similar to what a judge does. When you evaluate a case, you look at the facts, the law, and evaluate on an objective basis.”
Indeed, Polston’s skills as an auditor seem to have aided him in his role as judge and justice, and colleagues are hopeful those skills will continue to prove helpful as he battles court funding issues that have plagued the judiciary for the past several years.
“He’s much better qualified,” said former First District Court of Appeal Judge Edwin Browning. “Not to reflect poorly on any justice, but very few justices we’ve ever had, if any, were certified public accountants and graduated with honors as certified public accountants.”
Chief Justice Polston grew up with accounting in his blood. His mother, Hawtence, was a bookkeeper for several retail stores in Graceville. As a child, Polston watched her work, and after graduating in 1973 as valedictorian of Graceville High School, he followed in his older brother Lamar’s footsteps and left for Chipola Community College and FSU, where he majored in accounting.
“Ricky has always been very diligent and disciplined,” said Dr. Greg Sloan, Polston’s college roommate, now a general practitioner in Chipley. “He worked hard. I will have to say, he worked harder than I did when I was going to school.”
The two friends didn’t just sit around and study all day, though. Polston, Sloan said, had a sharp sense of humor and an appreciation for practical jokes.
“We had a couple of friends in an apartment just down from us in the same complex, and we played jokes on those guys a few times,” said Sloan, recalling one particular incident when he and Polston sneaked into their friends’ apartment while they were out and rearranged their furniture.
“Ricky enjoyed having a good time. He could do what he needed to do and still have time to enjoy things in life.”
Polston had fun during his college years, but he also remained intently focused on earning his degree, a goal his parents had instilled in him and his brother.
“There was never really any question about what steps we would be taking,” said Polston. Neither of his parents had finished their educations, and they made earning a degree a priority for both boys, even if they wanted to come back to the family farm later. Though that, Polston admitted, was never really an option for him.
“Going back into farming was really not something I wanted to do,” he said, shaking his head at the memory of weekends spent tending the cows, hogs, peanuts, watermelons, and corn his family cared for. He laughed. “Once we did that, it instilled in us a desire to go do something else.”
Polston worked in accounting for seven years before choosing to pursue law. When he did, it was an adjustment for his entire family. Polston and his wife were already parents to their oldest daughter, Diana, when they made the decision to move to Tallahassee, and with a house that wouldn’t sell still sitting in Tampa, Polston had to begin working in addition to attending school.
“I remember him as a thoughtful fellow,” said former law school Professor Don Weidner, now dean of FSU College of Law. “He was quiet and thoughtful and serious, very business-like.”
That demeanor was due in part to the constant balancing act Polston was performing to keep his family afloat. With another baby on the way, Polston began teaching accounting three times a week at Florida State and Tallahassee Community College. He taught the same course to inmates at the local Federal Correctional Institution and interned with the Senate Commerce Committee. Deborah, too, was hard at work, taking care of the Polstons’ two young children and working from home as a professional seamstress.
“For several months, we had two house payments and no incomes,” said Polston. “That’ll kill you! It was awful…. I was juggling a lot, and we were very busy. That’s why my hair is white!
“We were doing anything and everything we could possibly do to survive.”
Despite a hectic schedule, Polston made FSU Law Review and the Order of the Coif before graduating in 1986, and by the time Polston began his legal career, he and Deborah had three little girls.
“The promise I made to Deborah when I went back to school was that it would not hinder our continuing to have a family,” said Polston.
During those early years, Diana, Michelle, Cheryl Victoria, and Rachel kept the Polstons on their toes with numerous activities and, thanks to Polston’s love for the outdoors, family camping trips.
“His love for hunting and fishing started with our dad, and then he kept it going during his college days,” said Lamar Polston, the chief justice’s brother, a retired insurance executive. “He and his buddies would go off two or three days at a time and camp along the river. He loves the outdoors.”
As a result, traveling became one of Polston’s favorite ways to spend time with his wife and daughters.
“We traveled every summer with the girls on extensive road trips, visiting 48 of the states and seven provinces in Canada,” Deborah said.
“We would camp half of the time and stay in a hotel the other half. We have battled wind and rain, snow and heat waves, broken air conditioners, and flat tires.
“I wouldn’t trade one memory, good or bad; I miss those days with our girls.”
Polston, too, remembered nights spent camping with the girls, but without Internet, weather predictions weren’t always accurate.
“It would not be very uncommon that we’d set up camp, and then a storm would come in,” admitted Polston. “Usually Diana and I would be the ones stuck in the tent with it storming outside, wondering if the tent’s actually going to stay up or not.”
Four girls made for a busy household, but by the time their youngest was 13, Deborah could see an empty nest looming ahead, and she began to research the possibility of adoption. In her search, Deborah found countless children in Florida who were being overlooked by potential “forever families,” and after much thought and prayer, she and Polston chose to adopt a young sibling group of three boys to join their family. That number grew, though, as the biological mother of the boys continued to have more children, and the Polstons continued to adopt. When it was all said and done, the Polstons had adopted six siblings in less than six years.
Today, the boys range in age from five to 19, so the Polston house is busier than ever, and although Deborah, a writer and adoption advocate, stays home with the boys, the chief justice does his fair share of parenting, too.
“I’m a very hands-on dad,” said Polston. “I help get them up in the mornings, get showers, help make breakfast and school lunches, and get them to school. In the afternoons and evenings, I’m taking them to parks and recreation teams, baseball, football, and soccer.”
With all their girls grown, Deborah has had to find new ways to keep the boys occupied at home, and each spring break, she has 16 tons of white sand delivered to the back of their property in Tallahassee.
“That’s enough to keep them busy for the rest of the spring and summer. Throw in a few kiddie pools, pails, and shovels, and we have the beach in our backyard.”
As for the long, extended road trips the Polston family used to take when their girls were young, Deborah said things have had to change a little with the addition of six rambunctious boys. Now the family takes shorter trips with plenty of outdoor activities and stops along the way. Those vacations — combined with weekly Sunday dinners with the girls and their families — keep the family close.
“When I think of Ricky and his wife, it reminds me of what you usually just fictionalize…the Norman Rockwell family,” said Fifth District Court of Appeal Judge Rick Orfinger of the couple, who celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary this summer.
“But that’s really who Justice and Mrs. Polston are. They’re not fictional characters. They live the life of family, faith, and community that is just so often fictionalized.”
Deborah Polston now uses the family’s unique adoption experience to travel the state advocating on behalf of other foster children and children who are victims of human trafficking. The nature of his job, though, prevents the chief justice from joining her on her various speaking engagements, and he said that’s probably a good thing.
“Craig Waters [public information officer for the Supreme Court] called me a couple of years ago and said the circuit court in Clearwater would like for Deborah to come down and speak on adoption day. And I said, ‘Well, Craig, I do that kind of work. You know, occasionally, I have to speak on those kinds of issues.’
“And he tried to delicately tell me, ‘Justice Polston, I understand. But they want your wife,’” he recalled, laughing.
The boys’ adoption experience has made Chief Justice Polston more aware of the need for timely justice. He and Deborah were licensed foster parents for seven years while they waited for the adoptions of all six of their sons.
“When Gov. Crist introduced me to the press, one of the questions was, ‘How have these experiences impacted what you do as a judge?’ My answer is, it really brings home to me, from a personal standpoint, the timing of cases. When the legal stuff is pending, it’s the last thing I think about before I go to bed, and it’s the first thing I think about in the morning when I wake up.
“It drives home the importance of getting cases timely decided. It really impacts people’s lives in a major way, and I understand that from a very personal experience.”
Polston’s pursuit of justice attracted him to the judicial branch even when he was in law school.
“I very much like doing what I do from this side of the bench,” he said. “I enjoy practicing law, but it’s a much more subjective advocacy role than what you have from this perspective. I’m much more comfortable, and my natural bent is toward an objective view.”
It would be a few years before Polston had the opportunity to pursue that passion, though. After graduating from law school, Polston joined Aurell Radley Hinkle & Thomas, a boutique commercial litigation firm in Tallahassee.
“There are a lot of good, smart lawyers with good judgment, and he’s at the top of that bunch,” said U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of the Northern District of Florida, a former partner at the now-defunct firm.
“Even as a young associate, he set a wonderful example for all the lawyers in the firm, and that was true all through his career. He’s a person of extraordinary character.”
Polston worked at the firm for nearly 10 years until the partners went their separate ways, and Hinkle left for the bench. Polston then used his business expertise to start his own firm, a strategy he said he wouldn’t recommend for new attorneys.
“It was a lot different for me than it would be if you were coming right out of law school, because I had the experience of being in the accounting world for seven years at a pretty high level, working for another law firm for 10 years, and taking on some administrative responsibilities in that firm,” said Polston. “I had built a client base, so I had a lot of great clients walking in the door. It’s not like I had to start from scratch, hanging out a shingle coming out of law school, which is not a good idea.”
Instead, Polston tells law students to take the first job they can out of law school.
“Land anywhere, and work your way from there. If it’s not a job you want to keep permanently, that’s OK. You can change and go somewhere else; people will understand where you want to go. It’s been a tough market, and people will understand that.”
Though he primarily practiced commercial litigation, Polston was briefly flung into the spotlight when he chose, as a private practitioner, to represent the state in the controversial “Choose Life” license plate debate. The Florida National Organization for Women challenged the plates in 2001, arguing the anti-abortion message violated free speech and separation of church and state. The plates were the first of their kind in the country, and supporters argued the message was intended to promote adoption, not criticize abortion.
The case was ultimately dismissed by a Leon County circuit judge, though a similar case, sans Polston, went to the Florida Supreme Court in 2003. Despite the brevity of his involvement, the incident brought Polston’s detractors out of the woodwork years later, when then-Gov. Charlie Crist selected him for a place on the Florida Supreme Court.
Tallahassee attorney Barry Richard addressed those critics in a 2008 interview with the St. Petersburg Times.
“Where would I position him on the spectrum of conservative, liberal, ideological? I think it’s a great compliment to any judge to say: I just don’t know,” said Richard, a registered Democrat who defended George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential election recount. “He looks at every case for its intrinsic value, and that’s the best kind of judge.”
Months after the “Choose Life” case, Polston received the call from then-Gov. Jeb Bush that launched him into the judiciary as a judge on the First District Court of Appeal.
On the Bench
“I was ecstatic,” said Polston. “I really enjoyed the mix of cases at the First DCA. It was a great, challenging court to be on.”
While serving there, Polston earned a reputation as a hard worker with a business-like approach to cases. He was a dissenter in the high-profile Bush v. Holmes case, which ruled Florida’s school voucher program unconstitutional. The program — a brainchild of then-Gov. Bush — allowed students in failing schools to attend higher performing public schools or participating private schools with the financial assistance of the state. The American Civil Liberties Union, part of the legal team that filed the lawsuit challenging the program, argued school reform in Florida meant improving public schools, not diverting state education dollars to church-run schools.
“There is no distinction between this Opportunity Scholarship Program and the state Medicaid program that funds religiously affiliated or operated health care institutions providing free or subsidized medical care (e.g., St. Mary’s Hospital in West Palm Beach and Baptist Medical Center in Jacksonville),” Polston wrote in a dissent for a November 2004 opinion of the same case.
“Why wouldn’t the holding be applied to other programs? There is no meaningful difference.”
The Bush v. Homes case made its way to the Florida Supreme Court in January 2006, where Gov. Bush’s program was found unconstitutional in a 5-2 ruling. It was the first time a state supreme court ruled states have a duty to educate students in public schools.
In another 2004 case, Polston agreed with the Florida ACLU and the Florida Caucus of Black Legislators, stating in a unanimous opinion that the state Department of Corrections must provide felons leaving prison with an application to have their civil rights restored and help them fill it out. (Once imprisoned, felons are removed from the voting roll and lose their eligibility to be licensed in many professions in the state.) The ruling disregarded arguments by FDLE that sending an electronic list of departing felons to the Florida Parole Commission satisfied state law.
Polston concurred with colleague Judge Peter Webster in a February 2002 decision stating that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People lacked standing to challenge the ending of affirmative action in university admissions, a result of then-Gov. Bush’s “One Florida” initiative and his “Talented 20” guarantee. Former First DCA Judge Browning dissented.
“I found it a delight to work with Justice Polston,” recalled Browning, now retired. “Even when he and I disagreed on a point of law, it was always civil, and there was always a vigorous, but very friendly, exchange of our differences on a particular case or point of law. I always respected his opinion when he disagreed with me, and I felt like — and I believe I was correct in feeling this way — he was the same with me.”
“You can disagree with someone, yet be collegial or friends with someone,” said Polston, who often frequented Judge Browning’s office at the First DCA. The two worked across the hall from one another and exchanged visits and stories.
“People would always say, ‘I don’t understand how you guys could be friends!’ He’s very neat and always caught up on his work,” said Browning with a laugh. “I’d walk in and try to mess up his desk and this and that.
“But then I’d walk in, and there wouldn’t be a thing on it!”
Ruling on the High Court
Polston has found the same collegial attitude at the Supreme Court, where he and colleague Justice Canady are frequently the dissenters in many 5-2 decisions the court hands down.
“Justice Canady and I tend to think alike. We have similar legal viewpoints, similar judicial philosophies,” acknowledged Polston.
Despite those 5-2 rulings, Polston insists it’s not entirely uncommon for him and Canady to come down on opposite sides of the spectrum. “Sometimes we do disagree with each other; he worked a long time at the Second DCA, and I did at the First. We’re quite used to writing our own opinions. It’s part of the job.
“My goal is to follow the law,” said Polston, “not to legislate from the bench.”
Peers on both sides of the political spectrum believe whatever his rulings, past or future, Polston is more than ready to lead, and they are certain he will lead it well.
“Whether they agree or disagree with his ruling, they know that his rulings are principled, intellectually honest, and carefully thought out,” said Judge Orfinger of the Fifth DCA. “He cares deeply about the independence of the judicial branch and the fact that we have to work every day to earn that respect of both the lawyers and the litigants.”
“One of the things I said at his investiture is if the judiciary had a best person award, he would get it,” said former colleague Judge Hinkle, now federal judge for the Northern District of Florida. “That by itself is a good qualification for the job.”
Chief Justice Polston, though, is quick to recognize he also has some big shoes to fill.
Over the past two years, the judicial branch in Florida has been led by Justice Canady, a former U.S. representative and one-time general counsel to former Gov. Bush. As one of the few justices who has worked in every branch of government, Canady was uniquely qualified to guide the courts through two difficult years, and when he left office in July, the court system had overcome several potential downfalls and secured a more reliable funding source.
“I’m glad to have the opportunity to give a better report than I gave last year,” the former chief justice said during his final “State of the Judiciary” speech at the Bar’s Annual Convention this summer. “It was a bad situation we were in. I was on the verge of needing to ask for a loan to get us through the first quarter of the fiscal year. There’s a lot of water under the bridge in the last year, and we have made some significant progress.”
Canady’s biggest undertaking was court funding, and during his two years in office, the Legislature switched the courts from being mostly funded through filing fees — particularly foreclosure filing fees — to being funded mostly by general state revenues.
Despite that success, there is still more work to be done, and the new chief justice knows it won’t be easy.
“When the court elected me to be chief justice, I told them I would always consider my biggest failure on the court my inability to persuade him [Justice Canady] to repeat as chief justice,” said Polston with a smile. “I think it’s fair to say the court as a whole would have liked to have seen him do that, but he was ready to be done.”
Polston, for his part, is up for the challenge.
“My goal isn’t to roll out new initiatives as chief justice,” said Polston. Instead, he plans to continue to fight for more adequate funding for the branch.
“[Attorneys] want to make sure they can get in a courtroom and get their cases heard and get them moved…. They don’t want to have a closed courthouse when they go to file something.”
Those who have worked with Chief Justice Polston believe he is more than adequately prepared to address these budget issues, particularly given his previous career as a CPA.
“I think he’ll be particularly strong on the business side of things, both in his substantive role as a judge and in his role as chief,” said FSU’s Dean Weidner. “He’s a numbers guy, that’s for sure, and in budgets, often the devil is in the details.”
The budget is Chief Justice Polston’s first priority, but significant internal changes at the courts are also on the horizon, including the pending retirement of Clerk of the Court Tom Hall in 2013 and State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner in 2014.
“What we do as a branch is very personal. We don’t make cars; we’re in a service organization,” said Polston. “We’re people-driven. Those are very important people we have to try to replace in some way. That’s a challenge internally.”
In the midst of maneuvering those departures, Polston also intends to wrap up some of the courts’ technology projects, including e-filing and e-service.
“We have a lot of technology issues that are on the books and in process. My goal is to try to wrap those up or to at least get them to significant stages of completion to then build on from there.”
In order to accomplish those goals, Polston understands he’ll have to keep an open line of communication with both the Legislature and Bar leadership. Bar Board of Governors members made several trips to the Supreme Court during Canady’s time as chief, and Chief Justice Polston hopes to maintain that caliber of communication.
“We certainly plan…to have continuous contact with them as we work on all of the legislative issues,” said Polston. “They’re a huge help in making sure we get adequate funding for the branch.
“I don’t have the same legislative experience that [Justice Canady] had. I interned over in the Senate Commerce Committee, so I have that very small exposure to it, but I certainly will look to Lisa Goodner, who has years of experience, to draw on her experience and through the Bar.”
Communication won’t be a problem for the new chief justice, said Judge Orfinger.
“I know he’ll have good relationships with the Legislature and with the governor’s office. That’s important,” said Orfinger. “You can’t kowtow to them, but on the other hand, they control the purse strings… you’ve got to make the other branches appreciate and understand that we’ve got fiscal needs that need to be met as well. I think he’ll do a really good job at that.”
Former colleague Browning agreed.
“He’ll bring a tremendous ability to communicate with people from all walks of life. He’ll deal with the Legislature without any kind of rancor.”
That ability was passed down to both the Polston boys from their mother, said brother Lamar.
“He grew up kind of quiet. Our mother was the bookkeeper at local department store, and so she was very much a focal point for the customers. They would come in and interact with her, so she would always remind us to look people in the eye, to speak to them and smile and be nice to them,” remembered Lamar.
“It was pounded into him so much that we’ve joked about it through the years. Sometimes it comes natural to people. I think with him, part of it is natural, but part of it is that he has that small voice of our mom whispering in the back of his ear, ‘Whoever you come in contact with, smile and be nice to them. You’ll be amazed at the results that will occur.’”
“Ricky has always been very respectful of others, regardless of their status in society,” said longtime friend Dr. Sloan. “He treats all individuals in equal respect. He just has that gift. He doesn’t put himself above others or other individuals.”
Above all, Polston hopes to be a good steward of the job he’s been given.
“Stewardship is a bond of public trust that must flow both in and out of the courts of this state,” said Chief Justice Polston at his swearing-in.
“Without this public trust, confidence in the courts inevitably would be diminished. I’m further committed that during my administration, the courts will be good stewards of the resources we’ve been given and of our mission to provide justice to all who seek redress.”
“He is extremely thoughtful and is careful in his decision making,” said former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major B. Harding. “I am confident he will provide extraordinary leadership and benefit the court and the state for his service as chief justice.”
His predecessor agrees.
“Justice Polston is ideally suited by experience and by temperament to serve as chief justice,” said Justice Canady. “He will serve the court and the people of Florida with great distinction.”
And although Polston jokes he and his colleagues attempted to keep Justice Canady on board as chief, make no mistake: He wants this job.
“I don’t want it misconstrued. I am not a reluctant participant. This is something I want to do.”
A Lifelong Seminole
His family and his job leave little time for extracurriculars, so Chief Justice Polston can’t name many hobbies, save for one: Florida State football.
“My dad would bring me and my brother to FSU football games, even back in the 1960s. There was never really any question about what steps we would be taking,” said Polston of his early affection for the school, where he received both his undergraduate and his law degrees. “We would go to Chipola and then on to FSU. So that’s what we both did.”
Polston is now an unusually active alumnus, serving as an adjunct professor at the law school. He teaches a wide range of courses, including alternative dispute resolution, insurance law, Florida constitutional law, and appellate practice. Teaching is old hat for Polston, who taught accounting classes at Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College to support his family as he made his way through law school.
“Once I did it, I found I really liked it. I like it even more now because it gives me a chance to be up on my feet, to be talking with students, engaging in intellectual discussion in a challenging way,” said Polston. “It keeps me doing lawyer-type skills, where you’re up on your feet engaging in discussion verbally, as opposed to just sitting down writing at my computer.
“It keeps those skill sets as a lawyer fresh and more in-tune.”
Becoming chief justice means his schedule is about to get a lot more hectic, but Polston taught appellate practice at FSU’s College of Law this summer, and he plans to continue teaching through his term as chief justice.
“He’s been extremely involved in our program, not just as an adjunct professor, but as a good participant,” said Don Weidner, FSU’s
law dean. “It seems every time we call on him, the answer is always yes.”
Polston is a familiar face at the university, often helping with orientation and FSU’s “summer for undergraduates” program. Polston also frequently speaks to students and faculty — “All of us at the law school have a lot of affection for him,” said Weidner — and attends university events. His latest claim to fame, though, is being the first FSU alumnus to serve as chief justice, an honor that would have gone to Justice Kenneth Bell, who resigned to return to law practice in Pensacola. Polston replaced Bell when he came to the bench in 2008.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m the first Seminole chief justice,” admitted Polston. “It’s not something I set out to accomplish necessarily, but I am very proud of it.”
“It’s a matter of great pride for the school, in part because so many people on the faculty and in the student body know him from his years of teaching at the school and his involvement in our other programs,” said Dean Weidner.
Weidner, who served as one of Polston’s professors during his time at FSU law, remembers Polston as a quiet and thoughtful student, traits he’s continued to exhibit after graduation.
“You couldn’t have a more thoroughly decent and compassionate person as your [school’s] first chief justice.”
Chief Justice Polston describes himself as a “lifelong supporter of Florida State University,” and although he’s no longer a football season ticket holder — “my hobbies are dealing with my family and occasionally going out with my wife” — he continues to attend many Seminole football games and other athletic events.
“He just gives to our community, whether we ask or don’t ask,” said Weidner. “He’s just a very giving person.”
And Then There Were Ten
The four boys spotted him coming down the stairs, and despite slight protests from their mother, they made a run for it. Their cries echoed through the Supreme Court’s atrium, making their destination obvious: “Dad! Dad! Dad!”
Ricky Polston didn’t bat an eye, just bent down to reach the boys at their level before grabbing one up in a bear hug and giving the others a smile he doesn’t often bestow from the bench.
One of the smaller boys puffed out his chest. “Daddy!” he said loudly. “Look! Today we’re dressed just like you!”
Sure enough, the four boys — ranging in age from five to 11 — sported ties and jackets, impeccably dressed for a special occasion: their dad’s swearing-in as chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
To the citizens of Florida and to members of the Bar, Ricky Polston has earned the new title of chief justice. But to his 10 children, he’s still just “Dad.”
Polston and his wife Deborah were a few years shy of an empty nest when Deborah began to explore the possibility of adoption, and her hours of research made her keenly aware of older children, sibling groups, and children with special needs — the children who often get left behind in the adoption and foster parent process. She knew their family had room to grow.
Justice Polston, though, was hesitant, and Deborah, now a statewide advocate for children in foster care and children enslaved in human trafficking, had to use her husband’s skills of logic and persuasion to convince him adoption was the right answer for their family.
“I finally got it when she turned to me — I was a judge at the First District Court of Appeal at the time — and said, ‘How would you like it if you were no longer an appellate judge?’
“I said, ‘I’d be devastated, because I love this job. I love being an appellate judge.’
“And she said, ‘Well, through no fault of my own, I’m about to be out of a job.’”
With Justice Polston now on board, Deborah’s job as a mother was secure, and she set out to find a small sibling group for the family to call their own.
“God’s timing is always perfect,” said Deborah. “One week before we met the boys for the first time, the oldest boy, Jacob, said to his case worker, ‘Go ahead and adopt out my baby brothers. No one will ever want me; I’m too old. I know I’m the one keeping them from being adopted, and I don’t want them to suffer anymore because of me.’
“It was that little boy we fell in love with. We brought the three boys home in the coming weeks.”
During those initial months, the Polstons served as foster parents for the three brothers, ages 10, three, and two, while also parenting their four teenage daughters.
“Our life had been turned upside down, inside out, and all around,” Deborah remembered. “Five months adjusting to our new family, the phone rings.”
It was the Florida Department of Children and Families. The birth mother of the three boys had given birth to another son, and the state wanted to know if the Polstons were willing to take him in.
“It’s just amazing, honestly. They stood ready to accept into their family each child,” said Mary Cagle, an attorney and director of Children’s Legal Services at DCF.
“Keeping sibling groups together is such an important thing in what we do. You don’t have your biological parents, so if you’re kept with your biological siblings, it’s an incredible gift. . . .They had their girls, so they understood the sibling relationship there, and they stood ready to do that with the boys.”
The Polstons had all four siblings, including baby Joel, adopted within the year.
“Who opens their life and their home to that extent? The Polstons did,” said Cagle. “Those kids are going to be the huge beneficiaries of that generosity.”
Two years later, the state called again. Another brother had been born, and the Polstons again agreed to adopt. Another two years after that, they received a final call from the state, and Jonathan, another sibling, became the Polstons’ tenth child.
“Chief Justice and Deborah Polston are today’s example of community leadership. They have been blessed with rewarding and significant career responsibility, yet they realized their potential to do even more to make a difference with these children,” said DCF Secretary David E. Wilkins.
“What I’ve always admired about Ricky is that he doesn’t just talk about it; he does it,” said Fifth District Court of Appeal Judge Rick Orfinger, a colleague and family friend of the chief justice. “His family and adopting all the children — he’s put into action what so many other people just talk about.”
Today, five years after the state’s last call, all of the Polston children — Diana, Michelle, Victoria, Rachel, Jacob, Josiah, Joseph, Joel, Jeremiah, and Jonathan — gather together at the Polston home for dinner on Sunday evenings. The daughters, now grown, bring their own families, and the result can look a lot like organized chaos.
“With 10 children and four grandchildren, our life is very busy and full,” acknowledged Deborah.
The difficulty with a growing family, she said, hasn’t been discovering the differences between raising daughters and raising sons, although there are many. Instead, their adopted sons’ various special needs keep the Polstons on their toes.
“The challenge in the day-to-day demands is to find the humor and those special moments to show affection and appreciation for each and every one,” said Deborah.
And although the state hasn’t contacted the Polston family in five years, Deborah said she and Chief Justice Polston know what their response would be if the phone rings again.
“People often ask us if we would take another one, and our common response is always, ‘Yes, if we are able,’” said Deborah. “We will always try to keep these siblings together.”
It’s been 10 years since Deborah Polston mentioned adoption to her husband, and while the chief justice frequently jokes about the size of their family — “Deborah, we’ve got too many kids,” he often quips — it’s clear adoption is a decision he’s never regretted.
“I’d have to say I’m most proud of my family,” said Polston. “That’s where I invest a lot of my time. I love my wife. I love my daughters. And I’m very proud of my sons and love them, too.”