1. Archive



Henry Lee Adams, Jr. appreciates just rewards.

For him it's a lifetime appointment as a federal district judge, a position with influence, power and authority to address some of the issues Adams has battled his whole life.

But such a prize has a price.

To preside in Tampa, Adams must spend most of his time away from Jacksonville, where he grew up, raised a family, built a career and led the move to integrate the state court bench.

So every weekend, Adams drives the 3{ hours home to his wife, Elaine, and son, Henry Lee II, who is president of his junior class in high school, to his grown-up daughter, Cheryl, to his brother and sister, and to the friends made through community involvement.

"And my mother's up there," Adams said. "And she doesn't take kindly to my being down here."

He and his wife will move the family home to Tampa when his son graduates from high school.

Adams began commuting in December, after his nomination by U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, appointment by President Clinton and confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

Adams concedes it was a hard decision but said he could not forsake the opportunity. Ultimate job security, a big pay raise -- from $93,111 to $133,600 -- and a chance to rule on constitutional matters. No more messy divorce cases, arrogant juveniles or ultra-violent felons.

"The terrible things people do to each other," Adams said of his experience in circuit court. "You don't want to come back the next day. You don't want to hear more about it."

The fact that he is the state's first African-American federal judge outside Miami is not lost on Adams.

"I grew up in a totally segregated Jacksonville, when the water fountains were separated," Adams said.

In a more rueful voice, he recalls taking the bus to college at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. "I remember the "colored' side at all the stops along the way."

Adams, 48, grew up during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. His father, Henry Sr., worked in a steel foundry making manhole covers. But as early as seventh grade, Adams knew he wanted to follow in the steps of men he admired in the Civil Rights Movement, lawyers Earl Johnson and Ernest Jackson.

He left Florida for law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He thought Jacksonville was but a memory, as he applied for Legal Aid fellowships in Los Angeles, San Francisco and D.C. But the Jacksonville office called and said they needed him.

"Since I was broke, and Jacksonville was home, it was the place to go."

After a stint with Legal Aid, Adams joined the public defender's office to gain trial experience. In 1972, he joined the city's first integrated law firm and did civil rights work while building an all-around practice.

By the late 1970s, Jacksonville's black lawyers decided one of them should become a judge.

"We kind of felt that it was time. I ended up being the likely candidate."

In 1979, then-Gov. Bob Graham appointed Adams to the circuit bench.

From the bench in Nassau and Duval counties, Adams saw it all. Criminal, civil, family, juvenile, probate.

He made news. In 1980, he was the first black judge in Florida to sentence a white defendant for killing a black man. Last year in a custody dispute, he had to order a girl back to her father in Indiana as TV cameras showed the child chained to her mother's porch, pleading not to go.

"I got some threats," Adams said of his state court days. "But I also got comments that I followed the law, which is my purpose and makes me feel good."

With about two months experience, Adams said he enjoys the challenges of the federal bench. He sees the more complex drug conspiracy cases, bank frauds, workplace discrimination claims, intricate business disputes and civil rights cases.

"And here you have the support to do the legal work," he said, with a nod toward his two law clerks in an adjacent library.

Before Adams got his new job, his most recent experience in federal court had been as a witness. He was called to testify in a 1991 class-action lawsuit that challenged Florida's at-large election of state judges. The plaintiffs claimed the system effectively prohibits blacks from getting elected in the Jacksonville area.

He testified that no black ever beat a white opponent in a judicial election, and that without first gaining incumbency via appointment by the governor, no black would likely be elected judge in Duval County.

Chief U.S. District Judge John Moore II ruled against the plaintiffs in that case. But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision last year and found that the at-large election system, at least in the Jacksonville area, violated the federal Voting Rights Act.

That decision in now under appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.