The Supreme Court of Florida — A Journey Toward Justice,1972-1987
By Jan Pudlow
In the early 1970s at the Florida Supreme Court, a white-coated black butler balanced a silver tray and walked from one justice’s chambers to another, serving coffee in china cups. After morning coffee-service, the butler would then roll file carts from office to office.
Soon thereafter in 1975, Joseph Hatchett donned a black robe and became the first black Supreme Court justice anywhere in the states of the old Confederacy, an historical moment that Gov. Reubin Askew called his most satisfying decision.
Such are the vivid details marking social change at the court in Florida lawyer Neil Skene’s book, The Supreme Court of Florida — A Journey Toward Justice, 1972-1987, the third volume in the series commissioned by the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society.
This volume chronicles the history of the Florida Supreme Court during turbulent times — churned up by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and scandals at the court — and portrays how the court adapted to these political and social changes.
“My earliest interviews were with Sandy D’Alemberte, Ben Overton, Joe Hatchett, and Arthur England. I have known all of them for a long time, and their colorful stories and memories made it obvious to me that this should be a book about people and events and the way decisions were made, not just about cases and an institution,” said Skene, who began working on the book in 2011.
“As I began trying to fill in details about the most important cases with information not in the published opinions, I began to think about how these cases had started and turned into something significant in the law. Sammy Cacciatore’s story behind Hoffman v. Jones, which opens Part II of the book, really set the standard for how I would discuss some other key cases, such as State v. Neil on peremptory challenges.”
Part I is called “The Reformation,” and the first chapter is titled “Four Horsemen of the Reformation,” for the newcomers of the Askew era of judicial reformation: Overton, England, Alan C. Sundberg, and Hatchett.
As Skene describes, Hatchett’s investiture signaled so much more than racial transformation.
“The Supreme Court by then was beginning to embrace the expansion of rights for women, minorities, and gays. Government was opened to public view. It was, as journalist Martin Dyckman labeled it, a ‘golden age’ in state government as young, progressive, public-minded professionals moved into power in government, replacing populists and so-called good ol’ boys who were beholden to utilities, agribusiness, and corporate interests and who secured their political standing with pork-barrel spending and appeals to racial prejudice,” Skene wrote.
Dyckman, who wrote A Most Disorderly Court: Scandal and Reform in the Florida Judiciary, called Skene’s book, “A richly sourced, thoroughly researched, and entertaining account of one of the most significant eras in the history of what is arguably the most important (and least reported) branch of Florida government.”
Chapter titles in Skene’s book reveal other dramatic changes at the Florida Supreme Court and the issues the justices grappled with during those 15 years. Here is a sampling: “Playing Chicken With Courtroom Cameras,” “Access to Legal Services: Who Will Serve the Poor?,” “The Machinery of Death,” “Accepting Gays,” “Reapportionment: Where to Draw the Lines,” “Constitutional Amendments: Tinkering With Democracy,” “Rosemary the First,” and “Virgil Hawkins: Crossing the Bar.”
“I really wanted to make this history interesting to people who are not lawyers,” Skene said. “It is not a Grisham thriller by any means, but I wanted anybody to open up the book to almost any chapter and find something interesting and understandable to them, without the need to read about things they were less interested in. Chronology is important in telling any story, but people are interested in topics and events. So I organized the book to strike a balance between topics and chronology.”
The Supreme Court of Florida — A Journey Toward Justice, 1972-1987, is available at bookstores and online at www.flcourthistory.org/Books.