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Blackwell wins Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award

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Bruce Blackwell

Bruce Blackwell at the Supreme Court of Florida

Blackwell wins Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award

Senior Editor

Within Bruce Blackwell beats a servant’s heart, nurtured from compassion shown to him when he was a small child.

When he was 6 years old, his mother died of cancer. He has almost no memory of her, except lying beside her in her sick bed.

When he was 11, his father was killed in an accident.

Blackwell’s aunt, Mattie Heagy, stepped up to adopt him and his brother. In a rural town of 400 people in Marion County, she became his mother who taught by example the value of hard work and to live by the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like them to treat you.

Mattie’s life centered on service to others, and she passed that quality on to her adopted son, who was honored January 28 with the 2016 Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award, the highest honor to a Florida lawyer who volunteers legal skills to help those who otherwise might not have access to justice.

Blackwell, a fifth-generation Floridian, learned young that when people really need help in life, they go to a lawyer. And when people can’t afford to pay for a lawyer, the fortunate ones have pro bono lawyers who come to their rescue.

Described by those who know him as a “workhorse for our profession who leads by example,” and an accomplished lawyer who never lets his ego get in the way, Blackwell showed his commitment to service by retiring from the Orlando firm of King, Blackwell, Zehnder & Wermuth, P.A., and becoming only the second CEO/executive director in the history of The Florida Bar Foundation.

“This was a call I just had to answer, as the Foundation is simply too important,” Blackwell said, when in 2014 he agreed to take on the daunting job of executive director of The Florida Bar Foundation at a time of crisis. Historically low interest rates slashed revenue from Florida’s Interest on Trust Accounts program, leading to the depletion of the Foundation’s reserve and sharp cuts in grants to legal aid.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga noted that Florida lawyers contributed more than 1.7 million pro bono hours, with additional contributions to legal aid of nearly $5 million, by the latest available reporting period ending in June 2015.

Over his 40-year legal career, Blackwell has handled 90 pro bono cases, totaling 2,121 hours, and currently has two open cases.

Yes, the ceremony was a day to celebrate selfless pro bono attorneys who “handle hard family law cases, domestic violence, human trafficking, immigration cases, veterans’ benefits, cyber stalking, and provide access to programs that feed, clothe, house, and keep families together” and others who “have helped put taxpayers back on the tax roll by defense of foreclosure cases. We can be proud of that work,” Blackwell said.

“But the sad fact is that when the Florida Bar Foundation was providing $35 million a year in IOTA funds from lawyers’ short-term interest trust accounts, we met only 20 percent of the need. After almost eight years of virtually zero interest rates, the servicing need has dropped to about 12 percent.

“The silver lining is that change is upon us, as we all look to improve the delivery of these services to all segments of our society,” Blackwell said, referring to the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, created by Chief Justice Labarga in 2014.

“I look forward to the day when legal access for rural Floridians is the same for those in urban Florida. Technology is a component. The young lawyers are a component, all 26,000 of them. Rules changes to make limited representation more available are a component, as are needed changes to simplify a system designed for ourselves, by and for lawyers. We will work with our courts, our county clerks, our law schools, the clinic programs. And we will need to find new funding mechanisms to make real court access real,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell’s nomination letter for the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award from Kathleen S. McLeroy was signed by 101 legal luminaries: judges, lawyers, and past Florida Bar presidents.

“Probably the most poignant example of Bruce’s impact arose from what should have been a simple landlord-tenant case,” McLeroy wrote.

Sabrina Wiggins’ family had been living without water for three weeks. Even though the rent was paid, the landlord was trying to evict them so the property could be developed into fancy shops. Blackwell helped move the family to another apartment.

Sabrina, a 17-year-old high school senior at the time, cooked and cleaned and took care of her three younger brothers, while her mother worked.

“I went home that night and asked my daughter whether she knew this girl,” Blackwell recalled for a November 2010 President’s Page column in the Bar Journal. “And Brooke said, ‘Sure, Dad, everybody knows Sabrina. She’s wonderful.’”

Blackwell floated the idea of inviting Sabrina to join the Blackwell family home, so she could have a more normal high-school student’s life. After her shock wore off, Sabrina accepted the generous offer that included a weekly allowance, a summer job as a runner at Blackwell’s law firm, Blackwell co-signing on a new car loan, and helping raise money from community leaders to send Sabrina to Florida A&M University, where she graduated with high honors, and from the University of Florida’s veterinary school in 2004.

She considers Blackwell her father figure.

The wonderful thing about pro bono practice, Blackwell once said, “is the psychic reward that comes from helping to bend history, even if only for one person at a time.”

When Blackwell stepped up to the podium at the Florida Pro Bono Service Awards ceremony at the Supreme Court, he accepted the award “on behalf of all my brothers and sisters who toil daily as volunteers, as legal aid lawyers, paralegals, staff, court personnel, bailiffs, and clerks who help pro se litigants, and on behalf of the thousands of Floridians whose lives have been changed because a Florida lawyer cared — and cares — and will keep on caring.

“Let me leave you with this from Horace Mann: ‘Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.’

“Thank you for each of you honored today. Thanks for making a real difference, as you put your brand upon your legacy for justice.”

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