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March 1, 2014

Judge Rosemary Barkett and Hank Coxe/photo by Larry Coltharp
JUDGE ROSEMARY BARKETT, with the help of Hank Coxe, shared stories about her life, at the FSCHS dinner in Tallahassee.

FSCHS honors Barkett for lifetime achievement

By Mark D. Killian
Managing Editor

From her a capella rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee,” to stories about riding on the back of a Harley at a judicial conference and adjusting to life away from the convent, former Chief Justice Rosemary Barkett had everyone laughing at the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society’s annual dinner.

The occasion was to give her a lifetime achievement award, but the January 30 dinner that packed a ballroom at the University Center Club in Tallahassee felt more like a celebration to match the upbeat verve of Barkett’s personality.

“Judge Barkett does not miss a minute of her life,” longtime friend Justice Barbara Pariente said. “She is not only 100 percent hardworking and energetic, but also 100 percent fun-loving. Constantly on an adventure in life!”

To meet Barkett “is to instantaneously recognize her down-to-earth humility, incredible warmth, and love of life, and passion for justice,” Pariente said.

Barkett was the first woman to serve on the Florida Supreme Court and the first female chief justice. She now serves as a U.S. member of the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal in The Hague. Prior to her new legal adventure, Barkett served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, an appointment she held since 1994.

Ask Barkett what she’s done lately, Pariente said, and you’re likely to hear stories about hiking in Sardinia, her pilgrimage in the Pyrenees, or learning to ride a skateboard and play the guitar.

One story worth retelling to the crowd was when Justices Pariente, Peggy Quince, and Barkett attended a judicial conference, and Barkett asked a local biker if she could take a spin on the back of his Harley-Davidson.

“He said ‘yes,’ and they took off,” Pariente recalled. “We were holding our breath and questioning if her self-proclaimed courage needed to have some self-imposed limits.”

Instead of a speech, Barkett held a conversation with the audience, hosted Phil Donahue-style by former Bar President Hank Coxe.

Noting Barkett was born in Mexico to Syrian émigré parents, Coxe asked how she ended up a naturalized citizen in Florida.

“Am I not the luckiest person in the universe?” Barkett responded.

Barkett said her parents wanted to come to the United States from Syria, but the quota system in place in the 1920s precluded the move because her mom was pregnent, and her parents thought they could get to the U.S. through Mexico.

“Although I never said this publicly before, my parents did swim the Rio Grande before I was born and came to this country illegally,” Barkett said.

“They were arrested in Texas. And the sheriff in Texas and his wife were so kind. Although they had to hold my father in the jail, the sheriff’s wife said, ‘I’m not going to let this woman and her children sit in the jail,’ so they took her into their home.”

Eventually, the family was returned to Mexico.

“My mother was so grateful for the kindness and sweetness of the law enforcement people in Texas that every year she would make this huge meal for the prisoners in the town we lived in in Mexico,” Barkett said. “I remember helping with that and serving the prisoners in the jail.”

The Barketts lived in Mexico for 20 years before eventually being able to come to the United States legally after World War II.

Coxe asked why Barkett gave up a lifetime appointment on the federal bench.

Barkett said it was hard to leave the court. She had already taken senior status when she was offered an opportunity “to participate in a whole different kind of court and a whole different kind of context.”

At first she said she was reluctant to take the position on the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal in The Hague, but did so because it was the only entity at that time in which Iran and the United States functioned together within the context of the rule of law.

“You don’t often, at this stage of life, get an opportunity to do something interesting and learn a lot about a whole other system that I never knew existed,” Barkett said. “So I took advantage of the opportunity.”

Sister St. Michael
Barkett’s path to the bench was anything but typical. She joined the Sisters of St. Joseph at 17 and became a nun known as Sister St. Michael. Over the next decade, she taught elementary and junior-high-school classes in Florida. Barkett graduated from Spring Hill College in 1967, and received her law degree from the University of Florida in 1970.

After years in a convent, Barkett was released from her vows, and Coxe asked her to share a story about her transition to secular life.

“You’re going to think I’m a total idiot and then take the award away,” Barkett chuckled.

First you need to understand, Barkett said, that people are “very sweet” to nuns, always greeting them pleasantly and doing kind gestures, like giving up their seats on buses. Barkett had been out of the convent for about three months when she flew from Miami to New York to catch a flight overseas to visit her sister. She had a 10-hour layover in the city and took in a movie to pass the time. At the theater, Barkett encountered a gentleman in the hallway.

“I look directly at him and said, ‘Hello.’”

When Barkett went to buy candy, there was the man again. They chatted and Barkett told him she was headed to the airport. He said it was on his way and offered her a ride.

“I said, ‘How very nice,’” Barkett said. “I thought it was the sweetest thing.”

So she hopped in his Cadillac and off they went. On the way, the man asked if she had ever visited Central Park. No. So they stopped and took a walk around.

“There was a bench, and we had a seat.”

At that point, the man put his arm around her.

“What are you doing?” asked a startled Barkett.

“He said, ‘Oh, come on.’

“I said ‘Come on, what?’

“He said, ‘Well, what do you think you were doing when you said hello?’

“I said, ‘I was saying hello. What are you talking about?’

“And then he said, ‘Don’t give me that. Where have you been, in a convent?’”

To which Barkett replied, “How did you know I was in a convent?”

That, Barkett said, “dampened his amorous thoughts.”

Turns out the man grew up in a religious Jewish family and “we had a wonderful talk about religion, and he took me to the airport.”

Florida Supreme Court
Barkett recalled the years she spent on the Florida Supreme Court (1985-1994) as a time when people could disagree without being disagreeable.

“When we would talk to the people in the Legislature, when we would talk to the governors — whether they were Gov. [Bob] Martinez on the Republican side or Gov. [Lawton] Chiles on the Democratic side — it was a lot of people trying to do right and thinking about what the right thing was. It was a very wonderful experience for me.”

She especially recalled her love of the late Justice Raymond Ehrlich.

“He was so smart, and he was so thoughtful, and he was so caring. He was able to bring people together and was so calm about everything he did,” Barkett said.

“At the same time, he had this wicked sense of humor. He would write me notes on the bench, such as, ‘Your mother would be very disappointed by how you are treating that litigant.’”

Away from Tallahassee, Barkett once received a call from Ehrlich, who told her, “You got us sued” by a disbarred lawyer. Ehrlich then began reading the complaint, “which says so-and-so versus Ben Overton, Parker Lee McDonald, Leander Shaw.”

“He names everybody, and then says ‘and that bitch Barkett.’”

Coxe noted Barkett faced a contentious merit retention campaign while on the Supreme Court and asked if she could change anything about the appellate bench, short of lifetime appointments, what it would be?

Perhaps longer, finite appointments, Barkett said, “maybe 16 to 19 years” with no need to appear on a ballot.

“It is foolish to ask people to vote on judges,” Barkett said. “The whole concept of judging is counter-instinctive to asking people to vote for you. It becomes a farce. It becomes a question of money. Those of us who have been appointed to the appellate courts have never run a campaign ever, and you are at a total loss. If it had not been for a lot of the people in this room . . . I would have been at a loss.”

She said judges don’t want to “run around” asking people for money.

“It’s ridiculous. But you have to.”

The merit retention system, Barkett said, is better than elections in one sense, but not in another, “because people have this ridiculous, false view in their head that if they unretain somebody they will get appointed someone who is perfect and is going to agree with them on every level. And that is not going to happen. In a way, it is hard, because you are running against a phantom thing.”

Bobby McGee
Barkett is a huge fan of Kris Kristofferson and told a story about how her secretary once went to lot of trouble to get a signed picture of Kristofferson for her 70th birthday. Sometime later, when she was speaking at Pepperdine University, in Malibu, Calif., a young man came up and said he understood she was a fan of his father.

“I said, ‘Who are you?’ He says, ‘Johnny Kristofferson.’ I said, ‘Oh, my nephew put you up to this.’”

And the young man said, “No, I’m really Johnny Kristofferson. He is my father. My mother arranged to have that picture sent to you.”

“I said, ‘You have your mother send me an email confirming that,’” Barkett said. “And lo and behold, I get an email from Mrs. Kristofferson.”

Barkett said she wrote back to Mrs. Kristofferson about how much she loved her husband’s poetic lyrics, and she said “I loved his poetry too — and here we are five children later.”

“And I said, ‘Well, I did not get that treatment,’” Barkett said.

When prompted by an audience member to sing one of Kristofferson’s songs, Barkett launched into an a capella rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee.” Belting out the lyrics she knew by heart — “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” — Barkett brought down the house.

[Revised: 03-22-2015]