A quiet pioneer looks back on his life in law

Published Dec. 12, 1993|Updated Oct. 10, 2005

In his own quiet way, Circuit Judge Frank H. White often has danced closely with the important events of his time.

In an Alabama courtroom in the 1930s, White was mesmerized by the trial of the "Scottsboro Boys," nine black youths charged with raping two white women. At the time, blacks couldn't be jurors. The woeful lack of evidence against the youths was matched only by the state's determination to send them to their deaths. By many accounts, the trial set off the civil rights movement in the United States.

White's mother, a school principal, wanted her eldest son to learn history firsthand.

"We were required to sit in the very last row. We were searched," White recalls. "These boys were marched through the front door and down the aisle, handcuffed and with chains on their feet.

"To see them chained together like that, and to hear those chains clanging as they walked down the aisles,

became something indelible in my mind."

On the witness stand, one alleged victim withered under cross-examination by defense lawyer Samuel Leibowitz.

"It was a masterpiece," White says. "He showed that her story wasn't, and could not have been, true."

Brimming with admiration, the 10-year-old boy decided to become a lawyer.

Years later, White opened the second black law office in St. Petersburg. When segregation became intolerable in Pinellas County's schools, his legal groundwork set change in motion. As a young public defender, he helped break the color line at the county courthouse.

He is one of only two black people ever elected to countywide office. He is the only black judge on the bench in Pinellas County, and only the second in county history.

Now, after 17 years as a judge and 33 years as a lawyer, Frank White is retiring. Come Dec. 31, he will leave public life as quietly as he came.

Some Pinellas lawyers have criticized White's judicial record. But others, lawyers who know him well, say White's worth as a jurist is masked by his unassuming demeanor.

"He bends over backwards giving every party a full and fair hearing," says St. Petersburg lawyer Thomas McCoun. "This is a real loss for Pinellas County. The equality he brought to the bench is really needed in this community."

Born 66 years ago, White was the oldest of seven children. His father, Ed White, worked for the railroad. His mother, Bertha White, was principal of the black elementary school outside Decatur, Ala.

When White describes the shaping of his character, he begins with his mother.

"She insisted that we go to college and get a good education and get a good job so we could live in a way that we would be proud of ourselves and be able to do something for the community. She wouldn't settle for anything less."

After White's parents divorced, he moved with his mother back to her native Florida. He attended Bethune-Cookman College until he was drafted. It was December 1945. World War II had just ended, but the Army was still collecting warm bodies. White stayed more than a year, gaining an honorable discharge and something more valuable: The right to attend college under the GI Bill.

That led him to Howard University in Washington, D.C., a Mecca of academia for black scholars. He waited tables, earned a bachelor of arts degree and met Elaine Carson, a Clearwater native who would become his wife of 42 years.

For several years after college, Elaine White worked as a registered nurse in Washington while her husband drove a cab and held clerical jobs with the government. Still nurturing his dreams of the courtroom, he attended American University Law School at night, "but I could see it was going to take five or six years to get where I should be."

So in 1956, the Whites returned to Florida, where they could count on family support. White entered Florida A&M College of Law and graduated first in his class. Then he opened an office on 22nd Street S _ the heart of St. Petersburg's black community.

These few blocks contained drugstores, medical offices, churches, cafeterias and the Manhattan nightclub, where musicians like Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan performed. Lawyers arrived in the late 1950s.

Fred Minnis was the first, and quickly brought in I. W. "Ike" Williams as a partner. When White arrived in 1960, Williams and Minnis invited him to join their firm, but White preferred to practice on his own. He handled divorces, and some criminal work, and mostly remembers the financial struggle.

"It was very difficult getting paying clients," White says. "It was quite obvious that many people did not have a great deal of faith or trust in black lawyers."

People in the community sent lucrative personal injury cases to established lawyers downtown, White says. "The general attitude was that white lawyers probably knew the judges and had better contacts and a better chance to get better money."

Meanwhile, Minnis and Williams had recruited two bright young clerks, fresh out of law school. They were James Sanderlin, from Boston University, and Frank Peterman, from Howard. The Minnis-Williams firm planned to open a branch in Tampa, Williams recalls. Instead, Sanderlin and Peterman passed the bar exam and joined forces with White.

It was a dynamic combination, recalls Peggy Peterman, then Frank Peterman's wife and legal secretary for the new firm of White, Sanderlin and Peterman. (She later became a columnist for the Times.)

Frank Peterman was quick on his feet and a flashy trial lawyer, Peggy Peterman recalls. Sanderlin "had vision and Frank White had knowledge."

White's legal briefs reflected his personality: methodical and meticulous, Peggy Peterman recalls. "If there was a loophole, Frank would have found it. He would slow-walk you down. He was something."

The firm's first big challenge was not long in coming.

In 1961, Clearwater resident Leon W. Bradley wanted to send his black son to an all-white school because he wanted his son to get "a good education." When the Pinellas County School Board denied the request, Bradley and a few other parents sued. After years of contention, Leon W. Bradley Jr. et al. vs. the Board of Public Instruction of Pinellas County eventually drove segregation from Pinellas schools and, to this day, controls such thorny issues as busing.

Public accounts of the Bradley suit differ somewhat from what the Whites and the Petermans remember.

Newspaper stories through the years essentially give full legal credit to James Sanderlin and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for initiating the suit. In these accounts, Bradley and other parents contacted the NAACP, which steered them to Sanderlin.

The Whites recall that Bradley found his legal representation through a different route: Horace Carson, a well-known Clearwater activist who happened to be Elaine White's father.

"Bradley knew that Mr. Carson had a son-in-law in the practice of law," Frank White recalls. Bradley asked Carson if White would take on the school case. "I drove to Clearwater and went to his home and we talked for about an hour and a half," White recalls.

By that time, White and Sanderlin already were soaking up the basics of civil rights law at NAACP workshops around the country. So after his discussion with Bradley, White told his partners they might be sitting on a precedent-setting case.

For a year or two, White recalls, he and Sanderlin worked as equals in researching, preparing and arguing the suit. "In the beginning, Sanderlin and I were carrying it together," White says.

White takes pains to acknowledge that Sanderlin deserves full recognition as the lawyer who stuck with the desegregation suit like a bulldog until he finally prevailed.

But in a rare moment of self-pride, White reveals disappointment that his own two-year contribution got lost along the way. "During that time, no one ever asked me about it," White says.

Public accounts "may have been the way that Sanderlin reported that it happened. But it wasn't the only way it happened," he says. "I called the Times after one of the stories and said the story was incorrect and I would appreciate it if you would write it the way it should be written."

About that time, White, Sanderlin and Peterman dissolved their firm. Peterman drifted into other civil rights battles and politics and later left town after being disciplined by the Florida Bar.

Sanderlin won the desegregation lawsuit in 1971 and won a county judgeship in 1972. He was the county's first black judge. Later, he won election to a circuit judgeship, was appointed to the 2nd District Court of Appeal and gained widespread respect as a jurist before he died in 1990.

White headed in a different direction _ more akin to what the boy of 10 had witnessed at the Scottsboro trial.

Pinellas County recently had opened a public defender's office on a shoestring. White wanted a crack at criminal cases and volunteered his services. Besides, he acknowledges, Elaine White's nursing jobs still provided most of the family income.

"I was going to Clearwater once or twice a week, then three or four times a week," he recalls. "I really fell in love with trial practice."

Robert Jagger, Pinellas County's first and only public defender, was juggling a relentless case load with only three or four assistants.

"I would try three jury cases in one day, or seven in one week," Jagger recalls. "And it was always by the seat of your pants."

Trial rules were different then. Defense lawyers had little advance knowledge of the prosecution's case. Often a public defender's first interview with a client would take place in a courthouse hallway, five minutes before trial.

"I told Frank I could put him to work, give him exposure and, at the first opportunity, I would put him on the payroll," Jagger said.

White had found a calling.

"In the middle of a trial, Frank would object and rise out of his seat _ unfold, really," Jagger remembers of the 6-foot-6 White. "And when you elevate a person to his height, he would have everybody's attention without even saying anything. And because he was so quiet and deliberate, everybody in the courtroom would hang on his every word.

"He was effective with a jury because he was sincere and they knew it."

After about a year, paychecks started arriving and White was winning cases _ sometimes eight or nine in a row, Jagger confirms. Within a few years, White was Jagger's chief assistant, and he stayed for 10 years.

One of his first cases was to defend seven black youths accused of raping a 16-year-old black girl _ in those days a crime that carried a possible death sentence. Like the Scottsboro Boys, they were convicted, but the all-white jury recommended mercy and the judge handed out sentences ranging from six months to 20 years in prison.

"It was a great experience," White says. "I was realizing my dream. Certainly I didn't become another Samuel Leibowitz in the courtroom, but I was doing what I wanted to do, try cases."

Prosecutors from that period share Jagger's assessment of White's courtroom skills.

"It was still in vogue in those days for attorneys to do rather dramatic closing arguments, with lots of oratory," recalls Ray E. Ulmer, now the circuit's chief judge. "I was a young buck and fancied myself pretty good on my feet. But Frank was very methodical and never raised his voice. Nothing ever got his goat. That was an impossible thing to do, try as I tried."

"He was a fabulous public defender," says Clearwater attorney Frank Quesada, who recently was appointed to a circuit judgeship. "He'd clean your clock."

Susan Schaeffer, one of the circuit's most respected judges, began her career with the public defender in the early 1970s. By then, White was administering the office more than trying cases.

"A lot of assistants didn't even know he was a fine trial lawyer," Schaeffer says. "I, on the other hand, asked Frank to go to trial with me once. It was such a grand experience, I asked him to try every other big case with me after that.

"He did, and we never lost a case."

Sometimes Schaeffer would purposely avoid telling White any details of a case, so he could hear it fresh in the courtroom. Then, before her closing argument, he would point out holes in her strategy and suggest what questions must remain in the jurors' minds.

White would take notes as he watched the trial. If Schaeffer lost a thread or forgot a key point while addressing the jury, she would glance at White's notes and cover her tracks.

"He took better notes than any lawyer I ever saw," Schaeffer says.

If Schaeffer wanted to put an excitable defendant on the stand, she would enlist White to handle the questioning.

"Frank not only calmed them down, he could almost testify for them and get away with it," she said. "I always attributed part of my success to having him with me."

Outside the courtroom, says Jagger, White was having another lasting effect on Pinellas County: "Frank was breaking the color line."

Restaurants and lounges in the mid-1960s were struggling to adapt to sweeping civil rights legislation coming out of Washington. After hours, the tightly knit public defenders often would go drinking and dining together, Jagger says.

"It was an unwritten rule that we wouldn't frequent establishments that would not treat us right. Frank would be with us. Out of recognition of what a real gentleman he was, the doors were opened in several places. Unknown to him, he was probably the first black accepted there."

In 1976, White won election to a county judgeship _ Pinellas County's second black judge. In 1981, Gov. Bob Graham appointed him to a vacant circuit judgeship.

For several months, he tried criminal cases, the arena he knew well. But heart problems led him to request a permanent assignment to civil cases in downtown St. Petersburg, where he remains.

The civil bench requires long hours, White says. But he felt less pressure because the stakes usually involved money, rather than ruling on a person's life, as criminal judges must do.

White acknowledges that he lacked background in many areas of the civil law, and took work home many nights to get up to speed. Several of his domestic cases were reversed on appeal, and one anonymous 1990 poll of Pinellas lawyers gave him very low marks for legal knowledge and ability.

"Many attorneys, bailiffs and court personnel .


. want judges to make snap decisions," Jagger says. "Some judges are fast, and the calendar is current and the court personnel are as happy as pigs in mud.

"Frank is deliberate in everything he does. He won't make a snap decision. If anything, he is conscientious to a fault, and he suffers for it."

About three years ago, White says, he began thinking about retirement. He loves to garden around his home in the Broadwaters neighborhood of south St. Petersburg; he's an elder in Trinity United Presbyterian Church, and he enjoys traveling and the company of close friends. He will remain a senior judge and fill in for regular judges when case loads pile up.

He also has a wife who retired from nursing a few years ago and now worries that her husband seems to be pushing himself too hard. "I told him it was time to do something for Frank," Elaine White says.

In making his decision, White considered the timing. His current term expires at the end of 1994. Because he is retiring early, he will be succeeded by a political appointee. Traditionally, that increases the chance that his successor might be black.

The social changes that impressed the boy of 10 still exert some guiding force on the man of 66.

"I just felt it may afford a greater opportunity for a black judge to be placed on the bench, since the only one was leaving."

"He bends over backwards giving every party a full and fair hearing. This is a real loss for Pinellas County. The equality he brought to the bench is really needed in this community."


Thomas McCoun

"It was still in vogue in those days for attorneys to do rather dramatic closing arguments, with lots of oratory. . . . But Frank was very methodical and never raised his voice. Nothing ever got his goat."

Chief Judge

Ray E. Ulmer

"He was a fabulous public defender. He'd clean your clock."


Frank Quesada

_ Researchers Kitty Bennett and Debbie Wolfe contributed to this report.