Florida Supreme Court unveils dynamic exhibits showcasing judicial history and evolution
Other new exhibits explore the role of The Florida Bar and pro bono legal services
Last March, Florida Supreme Court Justice Jamie Grosshans and Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz accompanied their inaugural class of fellows to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington D.C.
“Their exhibits are just beautiful. They’ve done a great job of telling the [court’s] story and making it engaging and interesting, and with a flow, and a continuity that, I think, is very effective,” said Grosshans in an interview with the Bar News on January 17.
When they returned Muñiz said, “I think we should consider how we can make the story here better.”
One story became three: the role of the judicial branch of government; the history of the Florida court; and the history and role of The Florida Bar, which the court regulates. The Bar exhibit also includes panels on pro bono legal services and how chief justices are elected every two years by members of the court.
The new exhibits should get a lot of eyes, and not only from those attending oral arguments. Last year, 11,343 people visited the court on a scheduled tour and an additional 4,000 came for a self-guided tour.
“We’ve had some things up in the past that were very informative, but they had been around for almost 25 years,” Grosshans said. “There was a lot of text, all good, but kind of difficult to read.”
She added, “And so we really wanted to make something that was very contemporary, that would be visually appealing, that would be effective in communicating.”
Creating the new exhibits involved a lot of research. Grosshans and court staff began pulling information and photos from the State Archives of Florida in July. When the second class of fellows arrived in September, they ramped up the research and began drafting the exhibits, working with designers from Adele Creative. The final panels were installed by January. The exhibits on the role of the judiciary and the court’s history are displayed in the north hallway where the portrait gallery of Florida’s first justices once hung. Those are now shown in the courtroom. The Bar exhibit is, fittingly, in the lawyers’ lounge.
“It was very important to me that we focused and tried to hit every era of the court to really be able to tell the story of the path that our court has taken over the years, as part of this pursuit of justice, excellence, and making sure that the people of Florida have been served to the best of our abilities for almost 200 years,” Grosshans said.
Eric Maclure, the interim state courts administrator, happened to be walking by while Grosshans and Paul Flemming, director of the court’s Public Information Office, were giving the News a tour of the Florida judicial and court history exhibits.
“I love it,” Maclure said. “It feels modern to me. It feels fresh. And it feels like I’m gaining something through the journey.”
Maclure said the panel featuring the women who have served on the court was “really interesting.” It features the seven female justices, from the first, Justice Rosemary Barkett in 1985, to the most recent, Justice Meredith Sasso in 2023, whose ceremonial investiture was held on January 19. There have been 86 men on the court.
With Sasso on the bench, there are now three women serving simultaneously, a historic first in Florida.
“Having three women, I think, is just a great testament to: this is the new normal,” said Grosshans.
Grosshans said she thought it was “very beneficial” for Floridians to see “people that remind them of themselves on the bench.”
She added, “And so I do think it is very nice, no matter what the composition of the court is, for people to be able to come in and look and see things that they connect with or they’re familiar with.”
Grosshans said she learned a lot about the previous justices in putting the new exhibit together. Two of her favorite examples were Justices Robert Van Valkenburgh and Harold “Tom” Sebring.
Valkenburgh was the court’s 21st justice, serving from 1874 to 1888. Previously, he was a member of the New York House of Representatives, an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War, and subsequently a “U.S. Minister to Japan, where, in the face of a rebellion, he commandeered a warship and rescued the prime minister from capture,” according to the new exhibit.
“This was his retirement job . . . a justice of the court,” Grosshans half-joked about Valkenburgh, saying it was probably “the least exciting thing he did in his career.”
She added, “But those are things that I think have just kind of been lost over time. And I think those are great stories to tell about just some of the unique personalities and people that have been part of this family.”
Sebring was the court’s 46th justice, serving from 1943 to 1955. Growing up, he worked in wheat and oil fields as well as mining quarries in Kansas. He was a “highly decorated World War I combat veteran” and coached three University of Florida sports teams while attending its law school. As a justice, after the Second World War, he was also appointed by President Harry Truman as a judge of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal.
Sebring is but one example of the many justices who’ve had “such remarkable lives,” Grosshans said.
In town for the legislative session, the Florida Cattlemen’s Association swung through the exhibit on their annual tour of the court.
Dusty Holley, the association’s director of field services, said he liked the update from the portraits.
Explaining why, Holley drew upon an “old saying” about tombstones: there’s a birth date and death date but “what happens in the dash is what matters.”
“Well, it’s the same on those portraits. There’s a start date and there’s an end date. And if we don’t know anything about what happened in the middle, what’s the use?” said Holley. “So, I think these kind of bring to life some of that ‘what happens in the middle’ while they were serving. And I think that’s important.”
The exhibits were sponsored in part by the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society, whose mission is to preserve the history of Florida’s highest court and educate the public about the courts’ vital role in protecting personal rights and freedoms.