The Supreme Court of Florida: A Journey Toward Justice, 1972-1987
by Neil Skene
Neil Skene’s The Supreme Court of Florida: A Journey Toward Justice, 1972-1987, is well written, informative, and very entertaining. The book is the third in a series covering the history of Florida’s Supreme Court.
Part I of the book is called “The Reformation,” but just as easily could go by the one word title, “Change.” During the years covered in the book, the
state’s highest court experienced incredible change — not just in the makeup of the court, but in the way the justices were selected and how justices decided cases before them.
Much of the change on the court was the result of a deep-rooted scandal in Florida’s state government. In 1975, three members of the Supreme Court, including the chief justice, resigned. During that same period, the sitting lieutenant governor and three members of the state cabinet also resigned for nefarious reasons.
Florida was led out of this era of disrepute by Gov. Reubin Askew, who was the driving force behind the court reforms covered in the book. His efforts caused dramatic changes in how we select Supreme Court justices in the Sunshine State. Gov. Askew’s goal was to restore the integrity and independence of the court by taking politics out of the process.
The court described in the book was very different from today’s Florida Supreme Court. A typical day for the justices in the early 70s began with the delivery of coffee in china on a silver platter brought to chambers by a black butler wearing a white coat. Lobbyists and lawyers would routinely visit justices in their chambers — especially if they had a case before the court.
The court’s journey toward justice took giant leaps with a series of firsts: the first Jewish justice (Arthur England), the first black Justice (Joe Hatchett), and the first woman on the Florida Supreme Court (Rosemary Barkett).
The biographies of justices in the book focus on who they were as people and what life experiences helped shape them. Those experiences ultimately shaped the decisions they made on the bench.
Part II of the book, “The Life of the Law,” covers the evolution of jurisprudence in the state’s highest court. The behind-the-scenes view of the court includes a meeting in Chief Justice England’s living room to decide a last-minute appeal in the Spenkelink death penalty case. Justices watched the movie, Deep Throat, in the basement of the Supreme Court to determine if such movies met the constitutional standard for obscenity.
The evolution of not just the people on the bench, but of the law in Florida is covered in detail. The dramatic shift from contributory negligence to comparative fault in Hoffman v. Jones, the imposition of strict liability in products liability in West v. Caterpillar, the landmark Canakaris divorce case, and a variety of death penalty, open government, and media law cases are described in excellent detail.
The Supreme Court of Florida: A Journey Toward Justice, 1972-1987 is not just a book for judges and lawyers. Anyone interested in history, social change, government reform, and law will find the book very engaging. Excerpts from the book can be viewed on the Supreme Court Historical Society website at www.flcourthistory.org/Books.
Jeff Kottkamp is president of Jeff Kottkamp, P.A. He was Florida’s 17th lieutenant governor from 2007-2011, and served as acting governor of the State of Florida on June 18, 2008.