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Longtime Supreme Court Justice B.K. Roberts dies

Chief justice three times, he shaped Florida's district appeal courts and public defender system. He was 92.

B.K. Roberts, who rose from humble beginnings in rural north Florida to become one of the most enduring justices of the state Supreme Court, died Wednesday in Tallahassee at 92.

Justice Roberts, who retired in 1976 after 27 years on the high court, had been in declining health, said a granddaughter, Mary Anne Miller. A specific cause of death was not immediately known, she said.

His body will lie in state from noon until 2 p.m. today in the Rotunda of the Supreme Court Building. Gov. Jeb Bush ordered all flags on state property to fly at half staff until sunset.

A public memorial service will be at 4 p.m. Monday at First Baptist Church of Tallahassee. Former Justice Stephen C. O'Connell will present the eulogy. Burial will be private.

"The members of the court extend our sympathy to the Roberts family," Chief Justice Major B. Harding said in a statement issued Thursday. "We also express our appreciation for Justice Roberts' many contributions to the judiciary and the state."

Appointed in 1949 by boyhood friend Gov. Fuller Warren, whom he had helped to elect, Justice Roberts had been the court's dean, both in age and length of service. He served longer than anyone except the late Glenn Terrell, a justice for 40 years and seven months.

Chief justice three times, he played a prominent role in the creation of the state's district appeal courts. He was recognized as father of Florida's public defender system.

Over the years, he sponsored or lobbied for such major innovations in Florida's judicial system as the judicial reform amendment of 1972, which created the two-tier trial court system, and the merit-retention amendment of 1976, which provided for appointed, instead of elected, judges on the Supreme Court and district courts of appeal.

He helped pass the 1965 constitutional amendment creating the Judicial Qualifications Commission as an alternate to impeachment of judges, and he served on the 1965-66 Constitution Revision Commission. He was chairman of the commission's committee on human rights.

In 1965, he helped to establish the Florida State University College of Law. An FSU Law School building is named for him.

A Democrat then 62 years old, he was considered in 1969 for the U.S. Supreme Court. President Richard M. Nixon instead chose federal appeals court Judge G. Harrold Carswell, a Republican and former federal judge in Tallahassee. The U.S. Senate rejected Carswell.

When Justice Roberts stepped down at age 69, he left behind a court with a reputation beginning to tarnish. Two of three justices in trouble had been forced to resign; Justice David McCain was also disbarred and was a fugitive from federal drug-smuggling charges when he died of cancer.

Within six months of leaving the court, Justice Roberts, saying he didn't intend to "sit around and watch my arteries harden," had opened a general practice of law in Tallahassee, overseeing three young partners and two associates.

By 1992, the firm of Roberts, Baggett, LaFace & Richard had grown to 16 lawyers and merged with Greenberg & Traurig, one of Florida's largest law firms.

A prosperous Tallahassee lawyer when he was named to the court, he was known for many years as probably its most powerful justice. He was also perhaps the wealthiest, with financial interests over the years in real estate, banking and a Tallahassee auto agency.

His influence on the court waned as justices close to Gov. Reubin Askew began joining the court. After an effort failed to name him for a fourth term as chief justice, he announced that he would not seek re-election.

A native of Sopchoppy in the Florida Panhandle, Bonny Kaslo Roberts was educated in Wakulla County schools and became a licensed schoolteacher himself at age 13.

At the University of Florida, he lived for a time in an attic without heat or running water. When money ran out for that, he moved to a pup tent.

Shortly after he entered the university, a committee of students visited him and declared he was "not college material, and his poor clothing was embarrassing to the class." But five years later, in 1928, he graduated with a bachelor of laws degree and began to practice in Tallahassee. He received a doctorate of laws from UF in 1954.

Recalling his childhood in a 1971 interview, he said he was born of "poor, humble parents, but respectable people."

"I worked," he said, "as hard, I think, as any young man ever worked. I plowed fields barefooted, built bridges and worked at the University of Florida five hours a day just for my food."

In World War II, he signed on with the Navy as an officer and later was made U.S. shipping commissioner for the Port of Jacksonville.

Survivors include his wife, Mary; a son, Thomas, Shell Point; a daughter, Mary Jane Miller, Tallahassee; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

Beggs Funeral Home, Apalachee Chapel, Tallahassee, is in charge.

_ Information from Times files and the Associated Press was used in this obituary.