Robert Mann, known for his integrity, dies at 77

Published Feb. 27, 2002|Updated Sept. 2, 2005

Robert Trask Mann a former judge, state legislator and law professor known for his integrity and wit _ died Tuesday at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. He was 77.

Some of Florida's dignitaries remembered the Tarpon Springs native as an intellectual who championed ethical standards for legislators and never shied away from difficult issues. Former Gov. Reubin Askew said Judge Mann was a skilled debater, and a strong supporter of civil rights and desegregation.

"If something needed to be said, he said it without hesitation," said Askew, who was in the Legislature with Judge Mann and later appointed him to the state Public Service Commission. "I think he was one of the finest legislators I served with. He was one of my all-time favorites."

Judge Mann began his public career in 1956 when he was elected to the Florida House of Representatives as a Democrat representing Hillsborough County. After leaving the House, he served as a judge on the Second District Court of Appeal, taught law at the University of Florida and was appointed to the Public Service Commission.

During his 12 years in the Legislature, he made an impression as an intelligent and well-informed legislator who was quick with a one-liner.

During a debate about an ethics bill he supported, another legislator angrily denounced him for implying that lawmakers could be bribed.

"Gentlemen," he replied, "we're all agreed that no member of this chamber can be bought. The purpose of these rules, however, is to also assure the public that a legislator can't be rented for a few months."

Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, president of Florida State University, still remembers that debate.

"Bob was really one of the more brilliant people I've ever known," said D'Alemberte, who voted for Judge Mann in his failed attempt to become Speaker of the House in 1966. "He was one of the handful of people who was really important during an era of tremendous change in Florida."

Colleagues said Judge Mann defeated many opponents with his debating skills. Fred Karl, a former state Supreme Court justice and legislator, was a good friend of Judge Mann through the years but didn't always agree with him on the House floor.

"I debated him on a few things," said Karl, also a former Hillsborough County administrator. "He beat the hell out of me."

Former House Speaker Ralph Haben knew Judge Mann when Haben worked as a legislative aide to state Rep. Jerome Pratt.

"Pratt always said, "I hate to debate Bob Mann because he has the quickest comeback quotes,' " Haben said.

Richard McFarlin, an attorney who represented the Florida Bar in the late 1960s and who now is the general counsel at Florida State University, remembers Rep. Richard Bird helping Judge Mann get a bill out of committee.

Afterward, Judge Mann thanked his fellow legislator and said, "Never in the history of Western civilization has a Bird done so much for a Mann."

In 1969, after he left office, Judge Mann was awarded the St. Petersburg Times most valuable legislator award for 1967.

From 1968 to 1974, Judge Mann served on the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland. He was chief judge during his last two years there. The longtime Democrat switched to the Republican Party as a concession to former Gov. Claude Kirk, who appointed him to the court. He later switched back to the Democratic Party.

In 1971, Judge Mann broke both legs when he was crushed between two cars. He wouldn't let it slow him down. Immobilized in his hospital bed, he read The Brothers Karamazov and wrote opinions of cases that didn't involve oral arguments.

After he stepped down from the bench, he helped uncover a scandal involving then-Supreme Court Justice David L. McCain, who was accused of trying to influence an appellate judge to overturn a labor boss' bribery conviction. Judge Mann testified that he suspected a plot to force him and another judge off the case.

The fact that Judge Mann spoke up is no surprise to Stephen Grimes, a retired state Supreme Court justice who served on the court of appeals with him.

"He was a straight arrow," Grimes said. "Any suggestion that anyone was trying to get special treatment, he would want to make it right."

Judge Mann went on to be a law professor at the University of Florida from 1974 to 1986. While he was there, Askew appointed Judge Mann to the Public Service Commission in 1977.

A tireless student, he earned degrees from the University of Florida, George Washington University, Harvard University, Yale University and Stetson University.

Judge Mann retired in his native Tarpon Springs, then lived in Belleair in recent years. He was a regular at the Tarpon Springs Rotary and Old Timers meetings, and he chatted with the locals over coffee.

"He was a star," said former Tarpon Springs Mayor Anita Protos. "We'd talk down at Mr. Bill's coffee shop about growing tomatoes, growing collard greens. Then he would talk about law. Then we would go to the headlines of the newspapers and talk about arts. There wasn't any avenue that he didn't know something about."

Judge Mann is survived by his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Brown Mann, a former professor of library science; son Robert T. Mann Jr. of Stone Ridge, N.Y.; and daughter Margaret Elizabeth Mann of Brussels, Belgium.

The service for Judge Mann will be at 2 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church in Clearwater. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to the University of Florida College of Law or the Florida Methodist Foundation in Lakeland.

_ Times staff writers Martin Dyckman and Lucy Morgan and researchers Mary Mellstrom and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.