Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Opinion

Overton led court out of era of scandal

Ben Overton was a Pinellas County circuit judge in 1974 when Gov. Reubin Askew selected him for the Florida Supreme Court under a new merit retention system designed to take politics out of the judicial selection process.

Overton took his seat on the court amid turmoil and intrigue and threats of impeachment as a scandal engulfed the state's highest court.

The Florida court system was still very much stuck in its segregated past. There were no black judges on the court, and one of Overton's new colleagues was notorious for rejecting a U.S. Supreme Court directive to integrate the University of Florida Law School where Overton had graduated in 1952.

But the court was changing fast. After Overton was appointed, Miami lawyer Arthur J. England Jr., the first Jewish justice, was elected. He defeated Sam Spector, a candidate who had the support of longtime Justice B.K. Roberts. In 1975, shortly after England took office, Askew appointed Joseph W. Hatchett of Clearwater, the first African-American on the Supreme Court, and Alan Sundberg, a St. Petersburg lawyer and longtime friend of Overton.

Together, they formed a new majority and the core of a movement that dramatically reformed the court.

England, now retired and living in Miami, recalled those days in an interview last week. He was a tax and estate lawyer who had literally never been in a courtroom before he was elected to the court.

"I used to joke that I wasn't sure where the courthouse was in Miami and say I thought it was the one with the pigeons on it,'' England recalled.

He credits Overton with many "kind moments'' helping him understand the court system. "He never lost patience with me,'' England added.

Those were tough days. The Florida House was in the midst of voting on articles of impeachment filed against three justices whose misconduct led to a widespread lack of respect for the court. Two of the three resigned to avoid impeachment.

"We felt the hostility,'' England recalled. "But the four of us just basically decided to do our jobs as best we could and if people didn't like us they could vote us out of office.''

They changed the atmosphere surrounding the court, he said, "by hunkering down.''

Overton, asked in 1994 about those troubled times after he was appointed to the court, recalled: "It was not a collegial body. Two justices would not ride on the same elevator with each other.''

By the time Sundberg and England left the court and returned to private practice in the early 1980s, the court was a very different place. Hatchett left the court in 1979 when he was appointed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Overton remained until 1999, when he turned 70 and was forced to retire. He died Dec. 29 in Gainesville of complications from heart surgery at age 86.

Overton was a no-nonsense judge with deeply held beliefs about how the courts ought to operate. As chief judge in the Pinellas-Pasco circuit, he got to know most of the state's circuit judges, a bonus in a state where the highest court establishes the rules for all courts.

He was a stickler for the rules that courts were supposed to operate by, a characteristic that he displayed in 1976 when he became the only justice on the court who wanted me to go to jail.

As a lawyer, Overton once represented the St. Petersburg Times, but as a justice he prized grand jury secrecy more than the freedom of a reporter who refused to reveal the source of a story about a Pasco County grand jury. Fortunately, his fellow justices disagreed and supported Hatchett's majority opinion. That opinion established a limited privilege allowing reporters to keep secret the names of confidential informants. (I never let Justice Overton forget the error of his ways.)

Overton took a different view when the state's newspapers and broadcasters pushed for cameras in courtrooms. He was part of a unanimous court that voted to open up courtrooms so Floridians could judge the legal system for themselves. As stupid as Florida looked in 2000 when we spent 36 days figuring out who won the U.S. presidency, our open courts let the world see what was happening in courtrooms all over the state.

England recalled the fight to open up the courts. It would be one of the final battles for the four reformer justices elected and appointed in 1974 and 1975.

"We felt the public was entitled to see the courts in process, with all of our warts,'' England noted. "We absolutely believed that the public was entitled to see us, and not just the public that could squeeze into a courtroom.''

Today, Overton's body will lie in state at the Supreme Court from noon until 2 p.m. A memorial service will follow. A final service will be on Wednesday at St. Anne of Grace Episcopal Church in Seminole at noon. Burial will follow in St. Petersburg.

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