The well-deserved retirement of Wilson Barnes is now in session
By Jan Pudlow
During the contested 2000 presidential election, Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Wells remembers being startled on a Sunday afternoon to find “the Japanese media had already set up a beachhead up there on the lawn of the court!
“There were tents, and then, by golly, the next day there were three blocks of satellite trucks. There were hundreds of people. There were jugglers out there, juggling things up and down! There was a lady who brought her pet skunk! It was unbelievable!”
On top of that, the Rev. Jesse Jackson wanted to speechify on the court’s front steps—but was diplomatically nudged back onto the lawn.
As Wells, then chief justice, tells it, it was the high court’s able marshal, Wilson Barnes, who would come to him each morning of the 36-day media, politico, and high-powered lawyers siege, and calmly say with a smile: “You know, today presents just another opportunity to excel.”
Not only did Barnes excel during his 15 years of service as marshal, he surpassed all expectations in making the courthouse secure throughout Bush v. Gore, after 9/11, and during the anthrax scare. And he did it with collegiality and professionalism learned during 29 years in the U.S. Army, where he retired as a colonel after serving as director of military and civilian personnel in 16 countries.
Never before has the court held a ceremonial session for the retirement of anyone but a justice—but they made an exception May 5 for 67-year-old Barnes, a beloved member of the court family.
“Unlike the Army. . . we don’t have medals to honor our heroes, so we honor our heroes the way we know best: with our words, with our thanks, and with this ceremony,” Chief Justice Barbara Pariente told the courtroom filled with lawyers, judges, law-enforcement officials, and friends made during Barnes’ extensive community service work.
To a worldwide audience of court sessions via the Internet, television, and in-person visitors, Barnes booming oyez—“Hear ye, hear ye!”—has “become the voice of the Supreme Court,” Pariente said. “And what a golden voice it is. . . . After he is long gone from here, that voice, his golden tones, will join the great baritones of this country.”
When former Justice Stephen Grimes came to the podium, he began, “Well, I am going to try it. ‘Hear ye. Hear ye. Hear ye.’ That is not going to cut it. Nobody can do it like Wilson Barnes.”
Unlike the sitting justices, Grimes said, he was on the court when Barnes was hired as marshal in 1990.
“At that time, the maintenance of this court was in disarray, basically shabby,” Grimes said. “I had just come up from the district court of appeal a couple years before, and when I got up here, I thought I had been demoted.”
More distressing, he said, was the lack of security.
“There were actually doors to the court that were unguarded and left open. I had remarked at the time that I thought a kid with a bomb could walk around and nobody would ever notice it. All that changed when Wilson came aboard.”
Under Barnes’ direction, the courthouse became equipped with a metal detector at the front door and scanners at the doors. Mail is screened before it arrives at the courthouse. Positive relationships were forged with law-enforcement at the local, state, and federal levels. Barnes made sure his guards with guns actually learned how to shoot them. And during the tense times of the 2000 elections, Grimes noted, “He had deputies watching and guarding the homes of justices.”
No celebration of Barnes’ dual careers could be complete without remembering from where he came, raised in segregated Richmond, Virginia.
Linda Wells, wife of Justice Wells, noted that, “The folks in Wilson’s neighborhood were not very far from slavery. . . . His maternal grandmother. . . could not read or write, but the parents and grandparents would make very sure that their offspring would read, write, and more.”
Justice Harry Lee Anstead paid tribute to Barnes as a “colleague, friend, brother, and patriot.”
“I want you all to know that, as a colleague, Wilson Barnes has a passion for justice that equals the passion of any justice on this court. And that passion comes from his own life,” Anstead said.
“Wilson Barnes was born into an unjust society, but unlike a lot that might react to those circumstances by being bitter. . .that experience has caused Wilson to fight injustice wherever he sees it.”
Barnes fought against pay inequities of members of his staff, Anstead said. When he visited an inferior facility at an elementary school in Tallahassee, Barnes spoke loud and clear at school board meetings until the school was refurbished.
After Anstead’s tribute, Chief Justice Pariente noted with a smile, “We are going to have to watch, because the marshal is getting teary.”
Looking up from his seat at the marshal’s desk, Barnes said, “No, ma’am. I am not a wimp.”
Chief Justice Pariente presented him with a golden gavel, an autographed photo of the justices, and special resolution. On behalf of the court’s historical society, Dexter Douglass gave him the first volume of the history of the Florida Supreme Court. Justice Wells put a cap on Barnes’ head and christened him an honorary University of Florida Gator. Everyone stood to applaud after watching a slide show of Barnes’s life, accompanied by a recording of Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful.”
And then it was Barnes’ turn to speak.
“I may turn into that wimp that I said I wasn’t,” Barnes said. “This ceremony today represents a most significant event in my life. It represents the end of an almost 45-year career that has spanned not one but two great institutions, the United States Army, which is my first love, and the Florida Supreme Court. This era has, for me, represented a total commitment to the security and defense of the United States of America and service to the citizens of the great State of Florida, as marshal of the Florida Supreme Court.”
He began by saying, “Given my emotional state, I suppose I should take the suggestion of the chief justice and describe my three most important thoughts, which are thank you, I will miss you, and thank you all again. And then sit down. However. . . .”
And then Barnes thanked everyone by name who helped him do his job, as well as remembering the 58,000 brothers who never made it back from the Vietnam War.
He also thanked his father, a laborer in a paper bag factory, and his mother, who sorted tobacco leaves, who were most proud when Barnes made the football team at Virginia State University and graduated with a pair of master’s degrees in science education and personnel management.
“Without their love, their faith, their hope, their protection, their support, their courage, their survival skills, their hard work, their motivation, and their inspiration to me, I don’t think I would be here today, being recognized in the main courtroom of the Florida Supreme Court. I would venture to say that I would be dead or maybe I would be a statistic in a Virginia state prison system,” Barnes said.
“I know today that my ancestors are up there in heaven, and they are very proud and looking down today, smiling and saying. . . . ‘Boy, you have done a good job. We are proud of you. You have made something of yourself.’”