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Justice Boyd remembered across Florida

Senior Editor Regular News

Justice Boyd remembered across Florida

Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

On a wintry day a decade ago, Joe Boyd and his wife Ann were leaving the First Baptist Church when they spotted two homeless men shivering on a corner in downtown Tallahassee. Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Boyd rolled down the car window and handed over his expensive overcoat.

“That was typical of Dad. Dad felt that all people were created equal. He felt that our vagrancy laws were unconstitutional. He said if the prophets and apostles of the Bible were under such a law in Jerusalem, they all would have been jailed,” Jane Boyd Ohlin told those gathered October 29 at that same church, where her father’s flag-draped casket rested near his portrait leaning on an ornate easel.

Hours earlier, at the Florida Supreme Court, the justices stood on the front steps to pay their respect to Boyd’s family, as his coffin arrived to lay in state for two hours, behind the court seal embedded in the court’s rotunda floor, accompanied by a Florida Highway Patrol honor guard.

Boyd, who died at his home October 26 at the age of 90, was remembered as a jovial man who never met a stranger, valued his family above everything else, did what he could for others, and lived his faith.

Ohlin, a lawyer, chose to weave one of her father’s dissenting opinions into her eulogy, to show how much he cared for the common man.

In 1970, in Argersinger v. Hamlin, the majority court said there was no right to counsel for a defendant who spent only three months in jail. In his dissent, Boyd wrote: “All persons accused come to the bar of justice as equal, all being presumed innocent. Federal and State Constitutions are adopted for all of the people and must be applied uniformly. When a person is denied the exercise of constitutional rights, they are as meaningless to him as the shadow of a ghost. There is no magic yardstick by which we can determine liberty is more precious to one person than to another. From the inside, all jails look alike.”

Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Boyd’s dissent.

The winding road that eventually led to a place on the state’s highest court began on a dirt farm in Hoschton, Jackson County, Georgia, where Boyd grew up as the son of a poor fur trapper and house painter. A colorful yarn-spinner, Boyd captured “60 true stories” in print in his 1995 book Haunted Hills, in which he described himself as a “penniless hillbilly student who slept in haunted houses, fought bulldogs, and avoided escaped convicts and jealous husbands in selling a few Bibles.”

When he was 13, Boyd knew he wanted to be a lawyer, and he shared his inspiration to join the profession with the News in 1999:

“The reason was, I knew a man who was sentenced to a chain gang, because he picked a bit of worthless cotton and put it in his wagon. My dad and a distant cousin who was a judge went over and whooped it up, and the landowner dropped all the charges. I said, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer.’”

After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, he worked his way through law school at the University of Miami as a hotel clerk and Fuller brush man, receiving his law degree in 1948.

“Raise your hand if he ever suggested you should go to law school,” Ohlin said to the church full of folks coming to pay their last respects. Hands shot up all over the sanctuary, especially in the three rows reserved for family, including the justice’s son, Joseph Robert Boyd and his grandson, Joseph Robert Boyd, Jr., both lawyers in the same Tallahassee firm.

Every waiter and gas-station attendant who served Justice Boyd also got that advice, she said.

Baptist pastor Doug Dortch drew a comparison between Boyd and biblical figure Micah, small town folks drawn to the big city.

“Once I asked him, ‘How did you find your way to Miami?’ I didn’t realize the button I had pushed,” Dortch said. He recounted how Boyd spun the story about the time he was hitchhiking and was picked up by a Baptist preacher, who asked: “Why in the world would you want to go to Miami with all that sin? There’s alcohol and prostitutes and murderers and rapists.”

And Boyd retorted: “I thought to myself: Sounds like a pretty good place to be a lawyer.”

While living in the Miami area, Boyd served as city attorney of Hialeah and was elected to the Dade County Commission in 1958 and was re-elected in 1962 and 1965.

He was elected to the Florida Supreme Court in 1968 and served for 18 years, serving as chief justice from 1984-86. His time on the high court was not without controversy.

He weathered a 1973 scandal that caused the resignation of Justice Hal P. Dekle over allegations that the two had received a secret memorandum of a draft opinion from counsel in a utility case before the court. Boyd told the Bar Journal in his 1984 profile, “The memo mysteriously appeared on his desk, he had his research aide check to see if it was part of court file, learned that it was not, and alarmed, tore it up and flushed it down the toilet. After months of hearings and publicity, a panel of judges appointed to review the report gave him a public reprimand.”

Remembering his bitter re-election campaign in 1974, Boyd said: “I was accused of everything you can imagine. The front pages carried stories of the false accusations made by my political enemies, but the editorial pages endorsed my candidacy. The people knew the accusations were lies and they voted for me. My enemies failed to destroy me. The record speaks for itself.”

Toughness learned as a Marine and during his stint in Miami politics ­— coupled with his abiding faith in God — got him through the ordeal. The Florida House also investigated but declined to impeach Boyd in 1975 after he agreed to take a psychiatric exam. Boyd turned embarrassment into humor, often joking that he was the only justice on the Florida Supreme Court “certified sane.”

Sustaining him through it all was his strong love of his wife of 69 years, Ann. When they eloped in 1938 to Athens, Georgia, Boyd only had $10 in his wallet, and after the ceremony confessed to his new bride that he had borrowed it.

Frank Metcalf, who credited Boyd with starting the Seafarer’s Chapel, a nondenominational church at his coastal retreat in Shell Point, said the couple epitomized the scripture: “And two shall become one.”

Even toward the end, in the grips of Alzheimer’s disease, Ann insisted on caring for her husband at home.

James Goldman got a laugh from the rows of family members when he introduced himself as “Joe Boyd’s first and favorite grandson.”

“In the last year or so, he was not completely cognizant,” Goldman said, recounting how a recent out-of-town visit to his grandfather was disappointing because they were unable to really connect. But, as fate would have it, his late-afternoon flight home was cancelled, so he spent an extra night at his grandparents’ home, and it turned out to be a priceless blessing.

“For 20 minutes, he was as lucid as I’ve seen him in 20 years,” Goldman said.

The retired justice, storyteller, and family man told his grandson, “I’ve had my time here. I’ve done all I could possibly do.”

He said he wanted to go to Heaven to see the daughter who had preceded him in death, along with his mother and father, and other loved ones,

And with a peaceful smile, Justice Boyd declared: “I am ready to go.”

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