Justice Perry bids the court farewell
By Jan Pudlow
The rotunda at the Florida Supreme Court was abuzz with well-wishers, as Justice James E.C. Perry dispensed hug after hug and posed for cellphone photo after photo, following an hour-long retirement tribute on December 7.
After nine years as an 18th Circuit judge, followed by eight years on the Florida Supreme Court, 72-year-old Perry finishes his judicial career at the end of December because of “constitutional senility,” the Florida law mandating judges retire during the term they hit 70.
Calling Perry “a true pioneer in our profession” and a justice “with an unblemished record as a good and faithful public servant,” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga announced a surprise speaker.
Charlie Crist, recently elected as a Democratic U.S. representative for Florida’s 13th District, flew down from training at Harvard University to tell Justice Perry: “I love you and I am proud of your service.”
The former Republican Florida governor told about the first time he met Perry, during an interview for a seat on the Florida Supreme Court.
When Crist told Perry to just relax, Perry responded: “I’m the most relaxed guy you are ever going to meet.”
“Why’s that?” Crist asked.
“Because I just try to do what’s right,” Perry said.
“That touched my heart,” Crist said, mentioning Perry’s work with the Jackie Robinson Athletic Association in the 1990s, a baseball program serving 650 at-risk boys and girls, the largest in the nation.
“And he went to Columbia Law School, which I could never have gotten in,” Crist said. “He’s a big man with an even bigger heart.”
Florida Bar President Bill Schifino thanked Crist for the courage to appoint Perry to the bench, amidst strong signals sent by Republicans not to appoint Perry.
When Schifino read the profile of Justice Perry in the September/October Florida Bar Journal, he said the overwhelming attribute he learned about Perry was his courage.
He recounted how Perry took on the Georgia Board of Bar Examiners in a federal lawsuit in 1972, after Perry, along with 49 other black applicants, took the Georgia bar exam in June 1972 and learned he passed the multi-state exam, but did not pass the Georgia bar. When Perry found out that none of the 50 black applicants taking the test had passed, he called a meeting and 16 out of the 50 agreed to join his lawsuit. The others told him, “You are going to be blackballed the rest of your life.” When Perry told his mother he was taking on the Georgia bar examiners in federal court, she said, “Sonny, go back to New York and leave these white people alone.”
But Perry courageously stood tall, and while the case was still in litigation, the next year, 48 new black attorneys passed the bar exam, more than doubling the number of black attorneys in the entire state of Georgia.
Quoting from the Journal profile, Schifino said: “Asked whether he really wanted to be part of legal profession that was so closed and repressive at that time, Perry answered, ‘I wasn’t trying to get into that profession. I was trying to tear the system down that perpetuated this. My job was to kick down doors. When you kick down doors, you never expect to be let in.’”
“That door was kicked down,” Schifino said. “My pledge is that The Florida Bar will never forget the need for diversity and inclusion in our profession. Our profession needs to lead the charge and be the benchmark in that arena.”
Joseph Hatchett, admitted to The Florida Bar in 1959, who went on to serve as a Florida Supreme Court justice and federal judge, called the celebration “bittersweet for us, and I think for you, too,” as he looked up at Perry, who often dabbed away tears with a handkerchief.
Hatchett told how, in 1975, in Perry’s first year of practice in Seminole County, Hatchett was running for a spot on the Supreme Court and Perry was taking him around and introducing him to everybody at the courthouse.
“He knew all the judges. I was wondering: How can he know all these people in his first year of practice? I knew he was not from that city. He was introducing me to all of the lawyers. He had such a way with people, and it just appeared early in life that he was going to do well. I guess it’s because now I know that he does think first: What is right? That must be what ties him to people. You see people who came all the way from North Carolina. That tells you something right there.”
Everett Ward, president of Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, where Perry received his undergrad degree in business administration and accounting and later served on its board of directors, asked all the “sons and daughters of Saint Augustine’s” to stand, and eight fellow students who had traveled from afar rose to their feet.
“Saint Augustine’s prides itself in being described as a family-oriented institution. People come to Saint Augustine’s and find lifelong friends, as part of their educational matriculation,” Ward said. “So we refer to ourselves as sons and daughters of Saint Augustine’s. And Justice Perry epitomizes the ideals and precepts that define sons of Saint Augustine’s. We are taught to be servant leaders and to give back to our community, and that is why, in our alma mater, as I quoted today, it says: ‘Give us courage ever to dare to do what’s right.’ And Justice Perry has always done what’s right.”
Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Major B. Harding noted both he and Perry share North Carolina roots, but Perry’s experiences were “a great deal different than mine,” recalling how Perry was raised in the segregated projects of New Bern. With “faith, wisdom, and courage, he overcame those differences and created a roadmap for others to follow.”
Anonya K. Johnson, president of the Virgil Hawkins Florida Chapter of the National Bar Association, said she couldn’t imagine being the “first and sometimes only” black person in the room, noting Perry’s experiences at officer’s candidate school, where he served as a 1st Lt. in the U.S. Army, and later became the first black judge in Seminole County history. She said she has learned this from Justice Perry: “It is not enough to succeed in our profession, but it’s our responsibility to serve others. Thank you for paving the way, breaking down barriers, and making the impossible possible.”
After more tributes from Randy Nelson, Criminal Justice Administration Graduate Program coordinator at Bethune-Cookman University; Thomas G. Freeman, a retired judge of the 18th Circuit and close family friend; and Perry’s children, Willis, Jaimon, and Kamilah, it was Perry’s turn to speak.
Looking at Crist, Perry said, “I know I sit here today because you stood up for me, with me, and by me.” He called his three children and wife Adrienne, “the greatest gifts in my life.” He wished his parents and siblings were alive to witness this day, noting his parents taught him “integrity, hard work, faith, love, and honesty.”
And then the accomplished jurist, who joined his first civil rights demonstration at age 11, thanked civil rights leaders.
“I am acutely conscious of what I owe them,” Perry said. “Their service and sacrifices can never be forgotten.”