TALLAHASSEE — Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Ben F. Overton, who was instrumental in bringing cameras to the courtroom, died Saturday in Gainesville due to complications from heart surgery.
Justice Overton, 86, a former Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge, retired from the state's highest court in 1999, but continued working as an adjunct professor at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law. His death, announced late Sunday, came as a shock to his family.
Justice Overton had been in good health until just recently, according to his son, Pinellas County Judge William H. Overton. He said his father made sure to finish grading papers for his constitutional law class in time for a triple-bypass surgery Thursday.
Justice Overton celebrated Christmas a day late, as his family joined him in Gainesville on Wednesday to exchange gifts and then be by his side after the surgery — prompted by test results after he experienced shortness of breath recently.
"He was very comfortable about having surgery," William Overton said Sunday. "He expected to be here."
Overton, 59, said his father set an example for his children with his integrity, honesty and work ethic. "Some people earn respect because of their position. Others earn it by the way they act and treat people. He was that type of person," he said.
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Justice Overton was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1974 by then-Gov. Reubin O. Askew. The first justice chosen under the state's merit-retention system, he joined the court during a time of turmoil marked by scandals that led to the resignations of other justices. He became a central figure in many of the reforms that made the court one of the most respected in the nation.
"Justice Overton was one of the most influential members of the court after the sweeping reforms of the 1970s,'' said Chief Justice Ricky Polston. "He will be remembered not only for his far-seeing opinions, but also for his efforts in the 1970s to make the state courts more accessible by allowing cameras into our courtrooms.''
During his time on the court, which included serving as chief justice from 1976 to 1978, Justice Overton wrote more than 1,400 decisions and was instrumental in the creation of the court's website, one of the first in the world. He played a pivotal role in ensuring every Supreme Court case was televised, webcast and stored in an online archive available to the public.
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Born in Green Bay, Wis., Justice Overton attended the University of Florida as an undergraduate, where his family said he made the basketball team as a walk-on, and graduated from the university's law school in 1952. He also earned a master of laws from the University of Virginia in 1984.
Justice Overton served as a circuit judge in Pinellas County for 10 years and was well-known for his work in legal education and dispute resolution. He also previously taught at Stetson University and Florida State University's law schools.
Despite teaching at other Florida schools, Justice Overton was a lifelong supporter of the Gators. In his later years on the bench in Tallahassee, he made sure to schedule his UF law classes for Thursdays and Fridays so he could stay in Gainesville for weekends when the football team had home games.
His wife of 54 years, Marilyn, died in 2005. They met on a double date, his children recalled Sunday — only they were dating different people then. That changed shortly thereafter.
Survivors in addition to Judge William Overton include Robert M. Overton of Tallahassee and Catherine L. Overton of Gainesville, two grandchildren and an 8-month-old great grandchild, Adelynn Overton, who is part of one of the last Christmas presents her great-grandfather ever got — a framed picture of four generations of the Overton family.
Services will be Saturday in Gainesville. His body will lie in state at the Florida Supreme Court on Jan. 7. Burial will follow in St. Petersburg on Jan. 9 after a noon service at St. Anne of Grace Episcopal Church in Seminole.