Lucy Morgan: That time Sandy D’Alemberte kept me out of jail

I refused to name a source. He came to the rescue and forever championed press freedoms and free speech.
Published May 21
Updated May 21

We are unlikely to ever again see a Floridian like Talbot “Sandy’’ D’Alemberte.

He died late Monday afternoon at a rest stop on Interstate 10 on his way back to Tallahassee from the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. Emergency medical technicians worked hard to save him, but there was nothing they could do. He was 85.

Patsy Palmer, his wife and law partner, was driving him home after knee replacement surgery. She emailed a brief note to friends. “It was very quick,’’ she wrote. “His heart just gave out.’’

Those who knew him understood, given the many times Sandy put his heart into whatever he was doing. It seems as though he has always been an integral part of Florida —- its Legislature and its courts, its newspapers and, of course, Florida State University, where he was the dean of the law school and then president of the university.

In his spare time, he saved me from spending time in the Pasco County Jail.

As a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times in 1973, I was sentenced to eight months in jail for refusing to divulge a confidential source who had given me information about a Pasco County grand jury. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney James T. Russell and Circuit Judge Robert Williams didn’t much like my refusal to disclose the source of a couple of paragraphs in a story.

Enter Sandy. We had asked the Florida Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s decision, and I was uneasy about the outcome — especially with a husband and three children at home who would need to be cared for. The Pasco sheriff was more worried about me being in his jail than I was, but it would have been a major inconvenience.

I had known Sandy as a distant figure of importance for years, but we asked for his help on the appeal in late 1975. I met him at the bar in the old Holiday Inn on Apalachee Parkway in Tallahassee. In less than an hour, he had a total grasp of the case and was developing a path to win.

In July 1976, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in our favor. The court saved me and many other reporters who might face the threat of jail by extending the right to withhold the names of sources in cases where we had not witnessed an actual crime.

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Hatchett wrote the decision just as Sandy had envisioned it. And Sandy became a friend forever. He was a special friend for all reporters. He totally believed in the First Amendment and devoted much of his life to supporting it and advocating for press freedoms. He led the fight to put cameras in Florida courtrooms and the move to revamp the state’s judicial system to make it more efficient with his support of a constitutional amendment to reform courts from top to bottom.

Sandy was a friend who helped many Floridians in addition to the roles he took on: president of the American Bar Association; president of Florida State University; dean of the FSU law School; state legislator and litigator extraordinaire. He was a long-time mentor to the late Janet Reno, the Dade County state attorney who went on to be U.S. Attorney General for President Bill Clinton.

One of Sandy’s last cases was defending Reno’s sister, Maggy Hurchalla, a former Martin County commissioner who was ordered to pay $4.4 million in damages to a developer she fought. Taking advantage of cameras in the courtroom that he helped us get, we watched his arguments before a South Florida appellate court a couple of months ago. Sandy could barely walk, but he could still argue. He never let his declining physical condition interfere with things that needed to be done and he could often be seen driving his motorized wheelchair around downtown Tallahassee as he went about continuing the practice of law and public service.

Late Monday night, I posted a sad note about his passing on Facebook. I doubt Sandy ever had time for Facebook, but by Tuesday morning several hundred people were mourning his passing and remembering his work. Almost everyone mentioned the loss to Florida and all of its residents.

There is no one in sight who can replace him.

Lucy Morgan is a retired state capital bureau chief and senior correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times.

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