Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Leander Shaw dies at 85

Florida's first black chief justice's service was "an important step forward for diversity."

Published December 14 2015
Updated December 15 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Former Florida Chief Justice Leander J. Shaw Jr. — the state's first black chief justice — died Monday after a lengthy illness, the Supreme Court said.

He was 85.

Shaw was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court in 1983 by then-Gov. Bob Graham. He was the second African-American to serve on the state's top bench and the first chosen after Supreme Court elections were eliminated in the wake of corruption scandals during the 1970s.

In 1990, he became chief justice, serving in that role until 1992. He left the bench in 2003 after reaching the mandatory retirement age.

"Justice Shaw served Florida with dedication and distinction, first as a lawyer and then as a member of Florida's highest court for two decades," Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said in a statement. "Leander Shaw was one of a handful of judges who helped restore the public's faith in the Supreme Court and who transformed it into one of the most respected courts in the nation. This was no small feat after the scandals of the 1970s."

A native of Virginia, Shaw served in the Korean War as an artillery officer before going to law school and earning his law degree from Howard University in 1957.

According to the Supreme Court statement, when Shaw was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1960 — the days of legal segregation in Florida — he was one of only about 25 black lawyers practicing in the state. When he took the Bar exam, he was not permitted to stay the night at the hotel where it was administered — the old DuPont Plaza in Miami — because it was for whites only.

The court said Shaw often quipped that, when he traveled to handle a case in small towns, people would come just to see a black lawyer because it was such a novelty to them.

Before joining the Supreme Court, Shaw served on the 1st District Court of Appeal for three years. He began his legal career in Tallahassee by teaching law at Florida A&M University, before entering private practice in Jacksonville. He also worked as a public defender and a prosecutor.

"As Florida's first African-American chief justice, his service also marked an important step forward for diversity in our state," Labarga said. "On behalf of Florida's entire legal community, the judicial branch of government and my colleagues on the Supreme Court, I offer sincere condolences to his family."

Arrangements will include a memorial service at the Supreme Court. Details are pending.

Shaw's son, Sean Shaw, is a Tampa lawyer and a former candidate for the Florida House.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark.