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Those were days of civil politics and courtrooms

Last week the death of former U.S. Rep. D.R. "Billy" Matthews of Gainesville reminded me how civil politics could be. It is a dim and distant memory.

But back in the dark ages when I covered my first political campaign as a reporter _ 1966 _ Matthews and fellow Democratic U.S. Rep. Don Fuqua of Altha, a tiny Panhandle community west of Tallahassee, were running against each other because of redistricting changes that forced them into a single district.

It was the beginning of the end for all of those pine trees and cows that once had votes equal to the state's urban citizens.

Everyone expected a bloodletting in a face-off between two incumbent members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Instead it was a low-key match between gentlemen who spoke no ill of each other. There were no last-minute campaign fliers accusing an opponent of supporting tax increases or date rape.

When the votes were counted, Fuqua narrowly defeated Matthews, and the gentleman from Gainesville worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a couple of years and then went home to teach government to college students. Fuqua remained in office until he retired in 1987 and became a Washington lobbyist.

I remember it well because no campaign since then has been left unstained. For some reason we have fallen into an age when candidates feel they must not only defeat an opponent, but destroy his reputation as well.

Candidates not only destroy an opponent's reputation, they raise an ungodly sum of money to do it.

By the end of a campaign the winner owes so much to so many, it is no wonder Floridians question their integrity as they begin to make decisions.

It is no joke when someone suggests we have the best government money can buy.

How can anyone have confidence in government when the candidates who seek to serve the public feel compelled to tarnish each other so badly that even the winner is scarred and bleeding when he or she takes office?

This overwhelming absence of civility spills over into other areas of our lives. Take the state's courtrooms. There was a time when real issues were decided between litigants who won or lost without attempting to destroy each other.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys were civil to each other, even had lunch together from time to time.

Heck, there was even a time when the prosecutors, the defense attorneys and the newspaper reporters all went out to lunch together.

Back in the late 1960s when I covered trials in Levy County, Jimmy Adkins was the circuit judge and he would adjourn court long enough so we could all make it out to Cedar Key for lunch sometimes.

We learned more back then. Every lunch break turned into war stories told between judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys who had been working the same circuit for years.

It was a history lesson of sorts for young reporters like me.

My history lesson continued after Adkins made his way to the Florida Supreme Court, where he continued to serve as my courtroom mentor and instructor.

He became better known as "Mr. Justice Sunshine," in honor of many opinions that upheld and expanded the state's public access and records laws.

All of his life, Adkins looked back to those days in Levy County _ "Levy County Justice," he called it _ whenever a court had to sort of ignore the rules and make things come out right.

I don't long for some of the things that happened in those good old days, but I sure do wish today's politicians, lawyers and judges could learn how to be civil to each other and those who come before them.

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