Charles T. Canady – Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court
A Wendy’s fast food restaurant seems like an unusual place for a philosophical debate, but Charles Canady rarely does anything conventionally. As a young associate at Holland & Knight, the mild-mannered Canady joined fellow attorneys for a lunch hour at the local fast food chain, laughing and bickering over the goings-on at the office, typical for a weekday business lunch. Within minutes, the atmosphere changed as Canady, a conservative Yale graduate, and his more liberal lunch mate from Harvard began to engage in a loud political debate, earning the attention of several Wendy’s patrons enjoying mid-afternoon Frostys and French fries.
It’s not the only time Charles Canady has gotten riled up about something. In fact, over the years, that brief moment in Wendy’s has replayed itself in larger venues across the span of his life: on the floor of the Florida Legislature, arguing before the Senate in Washington, and advocating on behalf of Governor Jeb Bush.
Through the different milestones, this otherwise composed, soft-spoken man has remained passionate about one thing: the law.
On this particular day, he sits quietly, drumming his fingers on the table, occasionally staring out the window at the Capitol building across the street. Both his words and his movements come slowly and deliberately, a stark contrast to the way he got here, the new chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
“It is quick,” acknowledges Canady with a smile.
With just two years on the high court barely printed on his résumé, he has transitioned swiftly into the title of chief. Yet there’s no anxiety in his face, no nervousness in his voice.
His unruffled demeanor doesn’t come as much of a shock when you think about the numerous evolutions he’s made in his 30-year career: lawyer to congressman, bachelor to father, chief counsel to chief justice.
As one of the few justices with the rare distinction of working in every branch of government, Canady coined the term “partial birth abortion” in his fight for a nationally publicized bill banning the practice in 1995. He argued for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton just two terms into his career in U.S. Congress and faced a serious crisis when he joined Governor Jeb Bush’s office as general counsel just prior to the Rilya Wilson case. Wilson, a toddler living in foster care, had been missing for two years before her disappearance was discovered by the Department of Children and Families, a debacle which resulted in the resignation of the DCF chief and a new law requiring tracking of efforts to find missing children. In 2002, Canady put away politics for a life on the bench, first at the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland, then at the Supreme Court in Tallahassee.
The Pursuit of Politics
Formerly a real estate lawyer in Lakeland, Canady practiced at Holland & Knight for only three years before trying his hand at politics. He lost his first race for the state legislature, but the damage was done. “I did well enough that I knew I might want to try again,” said Canady.
A quiet and studious young man, politics was in Canady’s blood. His father, a political aid to then-Senator Lawton Chiles, recruited Charles as a junior high student to pass out brochures for Chiles and other local candidates. And, during Chiles’ first race for the U.S. Senate, Charles used a homemade silkscreen to produce campaign signs.
Following that first loss, Canady left Holland & Knight for the firm Lane-Trohn (now GrayRobinson), whose partners allowed him to pursue politics — specifically, a position in the Florida House of Representatives.
“I tried to discourage him from politics,” said Robert Trohn, a partner at the original firm. “I thought Charles had the makings of being a really fine lawyer, and I was not enthusiastic about politics. In my own values, Charles would have been better practicing law.
“He thought otherwise, and he thought correctly.”
In 1984, Canady, then a registered Democrat, won a seat in the Florida House representing District 12, just two years after his first race and five after his graduation from Yale Law School. Immediately, Canady immersed himself in the workings of the Legislature.
His father, who frequented Tallahassee on business, would stop by the Capitol for brief visits. “One of the lobbyists in the hall said, ‘Let me tell you something about your son!’” remembers Canady, Sr. “‘Everybody up here’s found one thing: When they go see your son, they better know everything they’re to talk with him about because if not, he’ll know more than they do!’”
The eldest son of the prominent campaign manager worked diligently, sponsoring legislation in his first year to provide additional funding for emergency medical services. It was what he describes as his “first real legislative success.”
“I’d like to think that because of that there are some people who received emergency medical treatment in an efficient or effective way that wouldn’t have received it without that legislation,” said Canady. “The lives of some people might have been saved.”
Canady held his seat through three separate elections, but in 1989, the conservative Democrat made an unusual decision to change his party affiliation. The move to the GOP suited Canady’s ideology, but came with consequences. As a Democrat, Canady had been given optimum office space: a prominent spot in the Appropriations Suite, a location typically reserved for more senior legislators. It was a perk of being a young face in the majority party. When he became a Republican, Canady was moved to a tiny office in the basement of the Capitol.
The penalties didn’t end there.
In 1990, Canady ran for the Senate, his first race as a Republican. He lost.
“There were quite a few losses on the way here,” Canady remembers with a laugh.
The losses, though, never seemed to bother him. Instead, he treated the setbacks as necessary steps that had to be taken on his way to the top. Family members say Canady possessed this composed, “the facts are just the facts” outlook as a young man. It’s an attitude that hasn’t changed much, even after the successes finally began to outweigh the losses.
“He’s not going to talk about himself in any glowing terms,” said Lakeland attorney Jim Valenti. “That’s just not him.”
Two years after his Senate defeat, Canady chose to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. This time it was a race he won.
Moving past the Mason-Dixon
Years earlier, Canady had chosen a different path from most of his fellow Lakeland High School graduates. He shied away from the local universities and instead chose a smaller private school: Haverford College outside Philadelphia.
Canady’s father thought the choice odd, especially for a child who was so bookish and particular. “I thought to myself: Haverford?” laughs Charles, Sr. “I didn’t know anything about Haverford!”
Ever the concerned father, the elder Canady headed straight for the public library to make sure his son hadn’t made a decision he was going to regret. He needn’t have worried.
“I found out it was one of the top schools in the East,” concedes Canady. “He had done his homework, as he usually did.”
For a teen who had never been beyond the Mason-Dixon Line, Haverford, a liberal arts school founded by the Society of Friends, was a bit of a culture shock. “During that first semester, I was homesick,” Canady admitted. He left campus for the Christmas holidays, not sure if he’d be coming back. Then he got his grades. “I had done pretty well, and I thought, well, I like this. So I stayed.”
The political bug that had bitten Canady as a child came back in full force at Haverford. His father’s position as Senator Chiles’ assistant made it possible for Canady to attend every State of the Union address, a privilege he happily took advantage of. He majored in political science and history, with the intent of possibly pursuing a role in academia. His father and mother, both educators, were surprised when he went in a different direction.
“I have never for a moment regretted having made the decision to become a lawyer,” he said. “There may have been some days where I didn’t particularly enjoy the practice of law, but I’ve never second-guessed that career choice.”
Canady chose to stay in the northeast for three more years to attend Yale Law School, graduating in 1979 with the likes of Sonia Sotomayor, now a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. His three years at Yale were quiet ones; his focus never strayed far from the books.
“Charles was very studious and very serious,” remembers friend and Yale classmate Robert Klonoff. “As you get to know him, his humor comes out. But at first appearance, he’s a bit serious.”
Every once in a while, though, Canady’s quiet demeanor would disappear, and always for one reason: politics. Friends of Canady and Klonoff gathered nearly every night for family-style dinners together on the Yale campus and in surrounding New Haven. It was the perfect environment for Canady to let loose.
“There wasn’t that much fun in law school, but those dinners were different,” said Klonoff, now a dean and professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Oregon. “Charles was a quiet guy, but at those dinners he was very vocal. There were lots of debates about politics, and Charles was always very outspoken about that kind of stuff.”
Despite a growing interest in the political world, after Yale, Canady moved back to Lakeland, not Washington, settling into life as an attorney, first at Holland & Knight and then Lane-Trohn, where he assisted with the Polk County Courthouse case, a 10-year long battle over negligence in the building, design, and inspection of the courthouse and its ventilation system.
Trohn represented the county in the many lawsuits involving the courthouse.
“He was a scholar,” said Trohn about his assistant on the case. “He did extraordinarily good legal research. He just has a very good legal mind.”
Throughout his time at Lane-Trohn, Canady served in the Florida House, a service the partners at Lane-Trohn endorsed.
Before the county courthouse issues could be fully resolved, though, Canady was ready for a change, and after three terms in the state House, he left for Washington, beginning his first of four terms in Congress. Friends were impressed — but not surprised — by the career change.
“It’s always amazing when your friends become important public servants, to be elected to the Legislature or Congress. Sometimes you’re surprised by that,” said attorney and Bar Board of Governors member Larry Sellers, one of Canady’s first coworkers at Holland & Knight in Lakeland. “But with Charles, he’s the kind of person that you always knew was qualified to be a first-rate public servant and that he would do a great job at it.”
In D.C., Canady exceeded expectations and quickly became known as the “workhorse of Capitol Hill.” Still single (a point not lost on political pundits or loving friends and family), Canady devoted most of his time to his work, particularly issues in line with his conservative values.
During his second term in Congress, Canady tackled his most controversial piece of legislation yet: a ban on partial-birth abortions, a term Canady himself had coined.
“The only difference between the partial birth abortion and homicide is a mere three inches,” claimed Canady. The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was vetoed by President Bill Clinton, but in 2003, while Canady was working for the Second District Court of Appeal, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was passed and signed into law by President George W. Bush.
His priorities shifted from the political to the personal in 1997 while on a trip home to Lakeland. His visit took him to a Young Authors’ Conference at Carlton Palmore Elementary School, where his sister, Lori Morrison, was then assistant principal. (She’s now the principal.)
Local community leaders like Canady gathered to hear readings written and performed by the school’s students. Canady found himself supervising the fifth grade classroom of Jennifer Houghton, a Lakeland native and a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church, where Canady was also a member.
“I knew of Charles,” recalled Jennifer, “but I had not met him personally.”
And she couldn’t take time to that day.
“It wasn’t a particularly easy group of students,” said Jennifer with a smile. “So I was just happy to get through the experience without any major problems.”
The day went by without a hitch, and the grace and poise of the young teacher caught Canady’s eye. But he kept his opinions to himself — at first.
“Charles seemed to be sort of timid with girls,” said Sellers, the Holland & Knight attorney. “It was almost humorous! If we were in a restaurant and he bumped into a young woman he knew from church, and he spoke to her, we would all razz him about it. He would get horribly embarrassed!”
But after the Young Authors’ Conference, Canady took an uncharacteristically bold move and made a phone call — just not to Jennifer.
“He actually called some mutual friends of ours and asked what they thought about whether I’d be interested in having dinner,” said Jennifer, laughing. “They were not encouraging.”
A group dinner was set up anyway, and Charles and Jennifer hit it off, despite some initial confusion.
“You know, I got a call about having dinner with a group that included Charles Canady, and I, at least originally, was certain it was a political event,” admitted Jennifer. “Then I figured it out fairly quickly.”
A few months later, in a small ceremony before friends and family, Charles and Jennifer were married. Jennifer quit her teaching position and joined Canady in Washington, where the two settled into married life on Capitol Hill.
Less than 18 months later came the case that thrust Canady into the national headlines, for better or worse.
“If anybody writes an obituary about me,” Canady said in an interview with an alumni magazine, the Yale Law Report, they’ll mention the impeachment somewhere, “if not in the first paragraph.”
November 1998, Canady was a fairly seasoned congressman, one of 13 House Republicans assigned to manage President Clinton’s impeachment trial. For the next several weeks, the managers presented their case calling for the President’s impeachment, focusing on White House intern Monica Lewinsky’s allegations of sexual misconduct and Clinton’s subsequent refutations of those allegations.
“When an impeachment is at issue, all partisan considerations must be put aside, and members must be guided first and last by their oath to support the Constitution,” said Canady, then chair of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, in his statement to the other members of the House subcommittee.
“any reasonable interpretation, the evidence presented to the House by the Independent Counsel — if it remains rebutted — establishes that the President is guilty of impeachable offenses under these principles.
“He must be called to account for putting his selfish, personal interests ahead of his oath of office and his constitutional duty,” he said in his statement.
On December 12, the House Judiciary Committee, of which Canady was a member, approved four total articles of impeachment, charging that the President committed perjury and obstruction of justice. Just seven days later, the House agreed upon two articles of impeachment: lying under oath and obstructing justice.
“I have no regrets about the basic decision there,” said Canady. “There may be different steps along the way that we could have taken differently, the way we managed the process, but I do not distance myself from the basic decisions we made in any way.”
Canady continued to represent the House Judiciary Committee during the Senate hearings in January.
“A President who has committed perjury and obstruction of justice is hardly fit to oversee the enforcement of the laws of the United States,” argued Canady.
“His calculated and stubbornly persistent misconduct while serving as President of the United States has set a pernicious example of lawlessness, an example which by its very nature subverts respect for the law.”
After three days of closed-door deliberations in the Senate, on February 12, the President was acquitted of the perjury and obstruction of justice charges.
“It was a very contentious event that divided people,” recognizes Canady. “But I did what I thought was my duty to the rule of law.”
Fellow attorneys say that first as a congressman and now as a judge, that simple statement has been Canady’s goal from the very beginning: to follow the law.
“Charles knows the job he has been given now is to interpret the law,” said attorney and friend Valenti. “Even a cursory review of his opinions shows that he will follow the law, even though he may not necessarily agree with it.”
Canady tackled other touchy issues during his time in Congress: flag burning, affirmative action, and school prayer. When his eight years came to a self-imposed end, Canady took a general counsel position with then-Governor Jeb Bush. He and Jennifer made the move to Tallahassee in late 2000, this time with one more in tow: a little girl named Julia.
Spicy Family Life
“Charles’ daughters are spunky,” laughs Valenti, whose own daughter used to babysit for the Canady girls.
Although studious and intelligent like their father, Julia, 11, and Anna, 9, bring lots of much-needed excitement to the family’s Lakeland home, where the Canadys have lived since Charles’ appointment to the Second District Court of Appeal.
“Our family life is pretty spicy for my husband, who values peace and order,” said Jennifer, smiling. “I mean, we have a very busy young family!”
These days, Canady keeps up with the day-to-day lives of the girls with Skype video chats and regular weekend visits home to Lakeland. “We live for the weekends,” said Jennifer.
When Justice Canady pulls into the driveway on Fridays, a weekly family tradition aptly named “Family Movie Night” begins. The four of them gather in the kitchen to make homemade pizza, then plop down in the living room to watch the family’s showing of choice: Masterpiece Theatre. “We’re just not into a lot of the regular kind of TV things,” laughs Jennifer. “It’s great, because the girls haven’t really figured out they shouldn’t like it.”
Another favorite of the girls? All Creatures Great and Small, a BBC television series based on the novels of James Herriot. “There’s no Dancing with the Stars here,” says Jennifer. “It’s more like old, British fiction.”
Occasionally, when Julia and Anna have a long weekend, Jennifer will load up the car for a visit to Tallahassee. The mini-vacations can be quite the adventure, and a trip made last fall was no exception.
Jennifer, now a middle school science teacher at Lakeland Christian Academy, had been supervising Julia’s science fair project: a study of the effects of light on monarch caterpillars. Hundreds of caterpillars made their temporary home in the Canadys’ laundry room, and the young scientist wasn’t sure she could leave the caterpillars home alone during the upcoming road trip to Tallahassee.
“I was not about to stay home because of a caterpillar project,” said Jennifer.
All the caterpillars and the milkweed used to feed them were packed gently in the family car. Only one thing was missing: the baby squirrel Julia and Anna had rescued from a neighborhood cat. The girls had been giving the squirrel bottle feedings every few hours.
“So we rolled into Tallahassee with 100 monarch caterpillars, and the whole car filled with pots of milkweed and a baby squirrel that had to be fed all the time,” said Jennifer.
The family arrived at Canady’s Tallahassee apartment expecting to be greeted with raised eyebrows and gentle objections.
Instead, the loving father took a look at the menagerie and had only one question. “The only thing Charles was concerned about — the only thing! — was whether or not I was sure that that particular species of squirrel was not regulated by the Fish and Game Commission and did not require a permit,” Jennifer said knowingly. “We had already checked!”
This penchant for following the rules has been with Canady all his life. In fact, replace “rules” with “law,” and you have Canady’s overall attitude toward his duties as a judge, a position he was appointed to by Governor Bush in 2002.
“He’s the kind of judge I hope I one day might be,” said Judge Simone Marstiller of the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. Marstiller served as assistant general counsel to the governor under Canady. “He has an uncanny ability to zero in on exactly what the legal issues are. He has a particular and concrete understanding of the need for courts to not encroach on the legislative [branch] and to not be making laws.”
This ability put Canady on the Second District Court of Appeal, an appointment he looks back on with fondness.
“There was always an issue coming along that was intellectually challenging and fun,” said Canady. “It was a very good job for someone who loves the law and loves public service.” Canady pauses and grins. “Sometimes I wonder if I should have stayed!”
After working in both the legislative and executive branches, the judiciary was new territory for Canady — but not unfamiliar.
While working in the governor’s office, a large part of Canady’s duties involved advising the governor on judicial appointments. Canady quickly began to respect the branch as a whole.
“It was encouraging to see the people who were willing to offer themselves for judicial service,” remembers Canady. “So many were so well-qualified and had so much to bring to the judiciary.”
One such judge, Pat Kelly, now of the Second DCA, recalls her interview with Canady vividly. “That kind of situation can be intimidating,” said Kelly. “But he could not have been kinder or more down-to-earth. He immediately put me at ease.”
For almost six years, Canady worked alongside Kelly on the Second District court until 2008, when Governor Charlie Crist interviewed him for a position on the Supreme Court of Florida.
Canady’s former boss, Robert Trohn, was pleased. “The goal in being a judge is applying the law impartially,” said Trohn, now of counsel with GrayRobinson. “And they all say they can do it. But Charles does.”
“As Chief Justice John Roberts stressed in his Senate confirmation hearing, a judge must have humility in his approach to the law,” said Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, a friend from Canady’s days in Washington, when McCollum served with Canady as a House manager for the Clinton impeachment trial. “Charles Canady has not only always had a great respect for the law, he is also a man of great humility. Justice Canady is a clear and excellent example of the proper role a judge should have in taking a humble approach toward his legal decisions.”
In his nearly two years on the court, Canady has been the sole dissenter in a few key cases, including the shackling of juveniles and a statewide grand jury for political corruption.
“I really think it’s important for judges to make their decisions on the merits, and then let the chips fall where they may,” said Canady. “And if I’m the sole dissenter on something, so it is.”
His occasional dissents from the majority certainly haven’t had an impact on the camaraderie on the court. With four of the justices’ appointments occurring within months of one another, they’re a close-knit bunch, often eating lunch together and spending time together with their spouses. It’s the type of working rapport Canady loves.
“We have an extraordinarily collegial court, and we have a very good working relationship,” said Canady. “I believe that whether I am on this court or not on this court [in the future], I will remain friends with the people who have been my colleagues here, and I will value their friendships for the rest of my life.”
Striking a Balance
Many weren’t sure Charles Canady, Republican, could make the transition to fair and balanced Supreme Court justice. His conservative politics didn’t sit well with some. Canady, though, believes his time on the Legislature only made him a better judicial advocate, and his 15-plus years spent passionately fighting for right-wing causes taught him a key skill: listening.
“Being in politics helps you to understand the perspectives of different people, and it helps develop the ability to listen,” said Canady. “Sometimes, there are people that come to an elected representative who mainly want somebody to listen to them. They may know that the problem they have is not a problem you can solve. They just want somebody who will listen to what they have to say.
“Those sorts of skills are also useful on the bench, because you can’t be a good judge without being a good listener.”
To the naysayers — and there are still plenty — Canady has another, even simpler, response. “Look at my record,” he says.
“In deciding cases, we’re there not to decide what we think should be done, but to decide what the law requires be done. That’s very different when you’re looking at issues from a legislative perspective, but I always understood that difference.”
Trohn says constituents and lawyers alike have nothing to worry about. “People make a mistake — only perhaps it isn’t a mistake — in evaluating judges and thinking about what their political leanings are, or what their political goals were or might have been and whether they can set them aside,” said Trohn. “Charles Canady can do that, and does do that.”
His colleague and predecessor, former Chief Justice Peggy Quince believes his vast range of experience will actually bode well for Canady as he leads Florida’s courts.
“It is going to be great for the judicial system to have someone who is familiar with all branches of government,” said Quince before officially passing the gavel to her colleague. “The court system will be in great hands with Justice Canady.”
A Faithful, Humble Leader
Despite his workweek in Tallahassee, Canady travels home each weekend to spend time with his family and to attend services at his church, Covenant Presbyterian, where he serves as an elder.
“In our family, we refer to Sunday as the best day of the week,” said Canady. “There are almost no exceptions to that. It’s part of the schedule that doesn’t get moved around.”
His faith, though, isn’t confined to the walls of the church building.
“His faith is primary; it’s what drives him,” says Valenti, an attorney and fellow church elder at Covenant. “If you believe [what he believes], the only sane response is humility, and a desire to serve others out of gratitude.”
It’s this desire that Jennifer Canady believes led her husband to a career in public service. “Part of what his faith calls him to do is to execute his responsibilities with excellence,” she says. “He’s a wonderful example of someone who takes his faith seriously and recognizes that people are important, and that justice is important.”
Even during his days at Yale, classmate Klonoff recalls, Canady was “incredibly ethical and principled. I always knew he would stick to his principles. He was just very principled and ethical, even back then, and I knew he would carry that into his career.”
This particular morning, as the new chief justice quietly dons his robe — a piece he sometimes teasingly refers to as his cape — Canady looks comfortable, at ease.
Of all the hats he has worn, this one might just be his favorite.
“As my life has moved forward, it’s become clear that there are really two things that I love in terms of work, and that is the law — I really do love the law — and I also really love public service,” said Canady. “And being a judge seems to be the perfect marriage of those two loves.”
A Lover of Books
My husband does not have any of the usual vices,” says Jennifer Canady, a hint of a smile in her voice. “He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t play golf.
“But he does buy books.”
Justice Charles Canady’s love for the written word is one of the first things family and friends mention about him (aside from his penchant for barbecue). His passion can be traced back to an early age, when Charles — a young scholar without much of an interest in sports — would spend hours reading the encyclopedia, not as a school assignment, but for fun.
The hobby was something his father, a political campaign expert, just couldn’t understand.
“I’m a sports enthusiast,” said Charles Canady, Sr. “And anything with a ball I always enjoyed. But Charles didn’t care much about sports. For fun he just read the encyclopedias.”
Not much has changed.
Today, Jennifer says, the walls of the Canadys’ Lakeland home are covered in books. His father teases that if his son’s career as a judge comes to an end one day, he always has a fallback option: to open a library.
The chief justice’s collection of books began to amass in earnest during his time at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Like so many parents of undergraduate students living away from home, Charles and Delores Canady would send their son money to help him make ends meet. But while most college students spent their parents’ checks on a dozen donuts or some Ramen noodles, Canady took Erasmus’ approach. “When I get a little money I buy books, and if any is left, I buy food and clothes,” the theologian once famously said. It’s a statement the young student took literally.
Now Julia and Anna, the Canadys’ two young daughters, have caught their father’s reading bug.
“Everywhere they go, they’ve got a book and are reading,” comments their proud grandfather.
“It’s really not unusual at all for all of us to be in the same room, but everybody in a book,” says Jennifer.
On family vacations — like last year’s trip to the mountains — the Canadys pick out an audio version of a book that they can all listen to during the long hours in the car together. Around the World in 80 Days was last year’s book of choice.
“The challenge for them is to find good literature that’s engaging,” said Jennifer. “And so that’s sort of a fun thing that we like to do together.”
Still, Jennifer says, there’s one reading memory that tops them all.
“When the girls were little, whenever they would come to a word they were reading that they didn’t know, they’d run and find their dad, and he would help them look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary.” The girls and Canady kept a notebook of the words they had learned, using the 20-volume dictionary set as a guide. The large volumes almost outweighed the girls, which was part of the fun. “I have wonderful memories of watching these little girls with these great big volumes of the OED, very carefully writing words in their notebook with their daddy,” said Jennifer.
Charles’ own taste in books runs the gamut, but his first love will always be history, a subject he double-majored in while at Haverford.
Unfortunately, the chief justice’s time for reading is currently limited. “With my job I have now, I have so much reading I have to do, including on the weekends and evenings, that my extra-curricular reading has diminished,” Canady admits.
Over the years, his enthusiasm for reading has helped Charles excel in school and achieve success in the legal profession. Perhaps more importantly, though, credit could also be given to his favorite pastime for introducing him to his wife of 13 years.
The two met at Carlton Palmore Elementary School, where Jennifer was a teacher and Canady was volunteering for a Young Authors’ Conference.
“It was the culmination of some writing activities that we’d done,” said Jennifer, “and the kids had all produced original books. Community leaders were invited to come, and students shared their books. Charles was assigned to my classroom.”
As Charles sat and interacted with the students, Jennifer immediately noticed one thing: “He is absolutely brilliant. Just brilliant,” she said.
Plus, the then-congressman “charmed them. He really made them feel good about themselves and made them feel like their work was significant.” The two bibliophiles were married just a few months later.
Yet the characters in the books he loves, Canady claims, live far more exciting lives than he.
“I’ve had a very boring life,” he insists.
With all of the stories he can tell, it’s a statement that’s hard to believe. First as a lawyer and a legislator, then as a congressman and governor’s counsel, now as a chief justice, Canady’s life tells a pretty fascinating story.
Not bad for a little boy who grew up with his nose in a book.
Challenges of a Chief Justice
On July 1, just over 18 months after being sworn in as a Supreme Court justice for the state of Florida, Charles Canady earned a new title: chief.
The position rotates to the most senior judge on the court who has never served as chief justice. Thanks to the influx of new justices appointed by Governor Charlie Crist in 2008 and 2009, Canady will now assume the role Justice Peggy Quince has filled for the past two years.
Canady’s résumé is lengthy and diverse. He served three terms in the Florida House of Representatives, followed by four terms in United States Congress. In 2001, he joined Governor Jeb Bush’s office as general counsel, and in 2002, he was appointed to the Second District Court of Appeal. Six years later, Governor Crist selected him as a justice.
“I feel like there are things in my background — both as a judge and prior to that — that will help me in carrying out
those responsibilities and prepare me to take them on now, even though I’ve only been on the court for a relatively short period of time,” said Canady.
He faces some daunting challenges, most notably in the realm of court funding, an issue that has been haunting the court system since the economic downturn began.
“We’re holding on, but we have been through a time and continue to go through a time where we have diminished resources, and additional demands are being made on the branch,” said Canady.
“Obviously the responsibility of the chief justice is to do everything possible to keep the branch going in these difficult times, moving forward to make sure we have the resources we need to perform the essential functions that we have the responsibility to perform under our constitution.”
With 15 years of experience in the legislature and Congress, Canady is equipped to handle the funding crisis. “I think they’ll know that I’m somebody who has walked in their shoes previously. I understand their perspective.” Canady pauses. “Although I will say that when I was in the legislature, we never faced challenges like they’re facing now. This is a unique time in the recent history of our state.”
Still, fellow justices have confidence in the former congressman.
“Justice Canady comes to the chief justice’s chair with an extensive background in public service in all three branches of state government as well as service in the United States Congress,” said friend and colleague Justice Ricky Polston. “That background without doubt has prepared him to meet the challenges facing our state courts system in this time of economic turmoil.”
In 2010, the courts survived the legislative session without any cuts, and they scored another victory when lawmakers approved an extra $6 million to aid in the backlog of foreclosure cases. The Supreme Court did experience a setback when its recommendation of 90 new judges was denied. But that one loss shouldn’t be the focus, insists Canady.
“Although we’ve been squeezed and really cut back to the bone, I think the legislature has been sensitive to the fact that we perform essential functions for the people of this state in providing justice,” explained Canady. “They understand the importance of what we do, and I think we just have to work with them in continuing to help inform them of the needs of the system.”
Those system needs may sound impersonal at first, adds Canady. But there are “real people whose lives are being affected by whether their case can be decided expeditiously.”
His second day in office, Canady set another priority by issuing an administrative order creating the Florida Innocence Commission. The 23-member commission, championed by former Chief Justice Quince, will study the causes of wrongful conviction and give in-depth consideration to measures that may prevent the conviction of the innocent.
Since 2001, 11 men in Florida who have been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated have been exonerated by DNA evidence. Although the commission will not review unproven innocence claims — that remains the job of Florida’s Innocence Project — it will review these individual cases in which innocence has already been officially acknowledged in order to determine the cause of wrongful convictions.
Even though Canady issued the administrative order, he says credit for the creation of the commission must be given to Justice Quince. During her time as chief justice, Quince obtained $200,000 in legislative funding through the help of incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos. Additional funding is provided through a grant from The Florida Bar Foundation.
“Members have been selected based upon their individual competence, experience, and anticipated commitment,” wrote Canady. “[The individuals chosen] offer a diversity of perspectives and expertise that will enable the Commission to meet its overall mission and specific objectives.” Quince will act as Supreme Court liaison to the commission, and a final report is due by June 30, 2012.
In addition to his legislative experience, friends say Canady has the utmost respect for the practice of law, a characteristic that will aid him in some of the court’s most frequent cases. “He always held himself to a high ethical standard,” says Holland & Knight attorney Larry Sellers. “He rightly expects that other lawyers should also hold themselves to high ethical or professional standards.” This, Sellers says, will help Canady and the rest of the court in the role they play in Bar disciplinary processes.
As far as other cases are concerned, former colleagues agree: Canady has what it takes to lead the court, and his legislative experience doesn’t hurt.
“It’s helpful to understand how the branches work together and the tension between them,” said Judge Simone Marstiller, a judge at the First District Court of Appeal. “He understands what it really means for one branch to give deference to another.”
For Canady, the task before him is challenging, but certainly not impossible. “A key to successfully working with other people is being able to see how they understand things, to be able to kind of step into their shoes.
“Now, their shoes are different from my shoes, and I have a special responsibility where I am now to the judicial branch, and that will be what guides me. But I think to be successful in doing that, it is critical that I understand how other people look at the judicial branch.”
Canady’s overall judicial philosophy is simple, and it’s been his mantra since his early days as a judge: Follow the law.
It’s a philosophy that has helped him reach the position of chief justice, a position some say has come as a welcome surprise.
“We had lunch a couple of weeks ago,” recalls former employer Robert Trohn, “and I said, ‘Charles, I’m having lunch with the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. Never would I have thought when you came to work with us that that would have been your destiny. Yet here you are!’” He pauses and smiles.
“Nobody knows what happens. But it’s a combination of chance and ability. And he had the ability to avail himself of opportunities when they were there. I wish there were more like him on every court in the country.”
Although the cases Canady now presides over on the Supreme Court are primarily death cases (“The diet at the district court is more varied,” Canady admits), his record from the Second DCA reads like one of Canady’s favorite novels: a unique cast of characters and some unexpected twists and turns.
In John R. Cartwright v. The State of Florida, Canady concurred with the state’s position to send the appellant, a convicted, sexually violent predator, to a treatment facility as mandated in the Jimmy Ryce Act. The act, which was signed into law in 1998 by Governor Lawton Chiles, calls for inmates with sex offense histories to be reviewed by the Department of Corrections, the Department of Children and Family Services, and state attorneys to determine the level of risk for re-offense. Inmates may also be subject to civil proceedings and commitment to a secure facility for treatment. In Cartwright, the appellant argued that the involuntary civil commitment described in the Ryce Act is unconstitutional.
“Cartwright argues that the plea agreement he entered with the State — which resulted in his adjudication for multiple counts of attempted capital sexual battery — precluded the State from subsequently seeking his commitment under the Ryce Act,” opined Canady. “Cartwright also argues that such a violation of the plea agreement was also a violation of the due process clauses of the Florida and United States constitutions.
“The claims are unwarranted.”
Just one week later, in the case of Stephen Edward Allen v. The State of Florida, Canady affirmed the commitment of another sex offender, Stephen Allen. In his opinion, Canady found only one of the appellant’s concerns worth addressing: the adequacy of the jury instructions, an issue that had also come up in the Cartwright hearings.
At the close of his opinion in Allen, Canady wrote: “We follow Lee and Cartwright in certifying the following question to the Florida Supreme Court as one of great public importance: ‘May an individual be committed under the Jimmy Ryce Act in the absence of a jury instruction that the state must prove that the individual has serious difficulty in controlling his or her dangerous behavior?’”
It was the second time Canady had certified that question in just one week, and the Supreme Court declined to rule in either case.
Canady faced an entirely different case in July 2004, when Lisa Abril and her husband Roberto appealed a trial court’s order dismissing their complaint against the Department of Corrections.
Abril, a nurse with the Department of Corrections in Hendry County, gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to an inmate infected with hepatitis C and was subsequently tested — but not through the department’s workers’ compensation carrier — for hepatitis and HIV. A document with information stating that the HIV test results came back positive was faxed to two separate unsecured fax machines, despite the laboratory’s assurances that the fax would be sent to a “confidentially secured” machine. According to the Abrils’ complaint, a number of people employed by the department became aware of the test results through the unsecured fax transmissions. Although later testing proved that Mrs. Abril’s blood had produced a false positive, Abril and her husband sought damages for mental anguish and emotional distress and for negligence of the department and its employees. Mr. Abril also sought damages for loss of consortium.
The Florida Department of Corrections filed a motion to dismiss the case on the ground that there was no statutory or common law duty for a lab or a government entity to protect the confidentiality of Mrs. Abril’s test results; the trial court granted the motion.
In his opinion, Canady reversed the trial court’s order.
“The confidentiality provisions of section 491.0147 and section 381.003(3)(f) serve the same purpose: to protect individuals from the unwarranted disclosure of highly sensitive information concerning their personal lives,” Canady wrote. “The harm flowing from a violation of confidentiality by a psychotherapist is closely akin to the harm flowing from a breach of confidentiality with respect to an HIV test.”
Canady also certified another question to the Supreme Court at the end of his opinion.
“Is Florida’s impact rule applicable in a case in which it is alleged that the infliction of emotional injuries has resulted from a clinical laboratory’s breach of duty of confidentiality […] with respect to HIV test information?”
It was an unusual decision, and then-Attorney General Charlie Crist submitted a reply brief to the Florida Supreme Court, arguing against Canady’s opinion.
“[The Department of Corrections] disagrees with the district court’s decision not to apply the impact rule under the circumstances of this case,” wrote Crist. “[The Department of Corrections] does not contend, however, and does not agree that the district court’s action is due to a highly flawed rule of law that needs replacement.”
The Supreme Court reviewed the case, and two years after its oral argument, in 2007, the court agreed with the Second DCA’s decision, affirming Canady’s original opinion.
“We … approve the court’s holding that the impact rule does not bar a cause of action for a breach of confidentiality in negligently disclosing the results of HIV testing.”
Annie Butterworth Jones is an associate editor with The Florida Bar Journal and The Florida Bar News .