Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Barnett reaches another milestone

(ran ET edition of TAMPA & STATE)

She graduated from Pasco County High School in 1969 and went off to college and law school back when women lawyers were about as common as a Florida blizzard.

Now, 52-year-old Martha Barnett is about to become one of the highest-profile lawyers in America. In Atlanta on Tuesday, she will be named president-elect of the American Bar Association, the second woman ever to hold the post. She will take over the presidency in July 2000.

It's a long way from the day she walked into the offices of the Holland & Knight law firm, fresh out of the University of Florida law school and the first woman lawyer hired there. To top it off, she was pregnant.

"I think a lot of people just never expected me to come back from maternity leave," Barnett said.

Although she moves in the rarified circles of America's legal elite, lobbying for corporate giants like the phosphate industry, IBM, Coca Cola and Tropicana, Barnett is known for standing up for the little guy.

"She's always really cared about human rights and legal services for the poor," said Florida State University president Sandy D'Alemberte, who held the ABA presidency in 1991 and 1992. "She is one of those people who are able to stick to their principles but not lose their charm."

Ask Barnett the most important thing she has done as a lawyer, and she answers with one word: Rosewood.

In 1923, an angry white mob destroyed a black community called Rosewood in Levy County, after a white woman said a black man had raped her. At least six black people and two white people died during five days of violence. The mob burned homes, wiping the community out. Some of the survivors caught a train and escaped. Some ended up near Lacoochee, the tiny mill town where Barnett was born. Barnett's father was a doctor.

"I used to go and make house calls with my daddy," said Barnett, who moved to Dade City when she was 9. "I think growing up in a segregated society deeply impacted me about how wrong it was."

In 1984, Barnett and another Holland & Knight lawyer, Steve Hanlon, took on the cause of the Rosewood survivors. They lobbied the Legislature to compensate the elderly Rosewood survivors and beat long political odds to pass a law that gave each survivor $150,000.

While doing legal research, Barnett made some startling connections that stretched back to her early years in Lacoochee. When she looked at signatures on birth and death certificates for Rosewood survivors, she saw a familiar name: Her father, Dr. William "Willie" Walters.

"I didn't realize until I started working on the case that I knew these people," Barnett said. "My father was their doctor."

Winning compensation for the Rosewood survivors, she said, "showed me what lawyers can do to change things."

"I think lawyers get a bad rap," Barnett said. "Lawyers contribute an enormous amount to a free society."

Barnett's resume is dizzying. Among her accomplishments: sitting on Florida's Constitution Revision Commission, the Florida Ethics Commission, Governor's Select Committee on Workforce 2000 and Florida Taxwatch Board of Trustees, to name a few. She has held more than a dozen posts in the American and Florida Bar associations, including stints on panels devoted to sorting out the legal problems of the elderly, women, indigent defendants and people in newly democratic societies in eastern Europe.

She served on a task force that the ABA set up to look at the status of women in the legal profession. The panel traveled across the United States, hearing tales of widespread sexual harassment in law firms and a complaints about lower pay for female lawyers.

"I firmly believe that the dramatic increase of women in the workplace has changed the agenda of the country," Barnett said. "Fifteen years ago, education was a women's issue. Health care was a women's issue.

"Today, the stereotypes of women not being serious professionals, not sticking with it, not being tough enough _ those stereotypes are gone."

She had a soon-to-be famous colleague on the commission: Hillary Clinton.

"She's a fabulous person and our friendship has continued until this day," Barnett said. "When I read the press accounts, I don't recognize her as the same person I know. She's so bright and so nice, and she gave the commission vision. I may move to New York so I can campaign for her."

While the number of women lawyers has grown dramatically, the number of minority lawyers hasn't kept pace, Barnett said. As president of the ABA, she wants to build more diversity in the legal profession.

Barnett, a longtime Tallahassee resident, is one of a string of Floridians to serve as ABA president in recent years. Her law partner, Chesterfield Smith, served the post in the 1970s; Tampa lawyer Wm. Reece Smith in the 1980s; and D'Alemberte from 1991 to 1992.

Barnett is married to architect Richard Barnett, and they have two adult children. In the fall, Barnett will be one of several hometown heroes honored in Dade City. While she serves as president of the ABA, an old Pasco County friend, banker Hjalma Johnson, will be president of another powerful group _ the American Bankers Association.

A fifth-generation Floridian, Barnett wants to visit Dade City schools to show kids that growing up in a small town isn't all bad.

"I want to let them know that there are wonderful things you can do with your life," Barnett said.