by Pat Dunnigan
Updated 1 years ago
Latimer, a widely respected former circuit court judge who joined the elite rank of partner at the Greenberg Traurig law firm, was positioned to become the first black president of the Florida Bar.
Leadership roles at the Bar have consistently eluded black lawyers. Latimer got there, according to friends and colleagues, by building a career of accomplishments while quietly mentoring black lawyers and prodding the legal establishment to expand opportunities for African-Americans.
Black lawyers had hoped Henry Latimer's appointment as Bar president would signal a change.
"His biggest accomplishment was to have been able to achieve distinction and prominence in the law and in the judiciary according to the rules of engagement or whatever the rules of the game are," says Miami lawyer George Knox, a former city attorney and law school classmate of Latimer's at the University of Miami, where they were members of the school's first class of black law students in 1973.
Latimer agreed to run for the Bar presidency only reluctantly, Knox says. "He was not ambitious in that way."
But after years of pushing for greater representation in the Bar, black lawyers saw real prospects for change in Latimer, who had established respect and credibility on both sides of the color line.
A brokered deal within the Bar put Latimer in line to run unopposed for the position in 2007, his colleagues say.
"I don't think it had been settled, but the greatest chance for them (Bar members) to demonstrate that kind of openness and inclusion would have been Henry Latimer," says Knox.
History of frustration
Such optimism stands in sharp contrast to the frustration among black lawyers eight years ago. Then, the state's most prominent black lawyers group, the Florida chapter of the National Bar Association, resigned its seat on the Florida Bar's board of governors after 17 years of occupying a special, non-voting seat.
The decision followed months of dissension within the Bar over a proposal to designate a black-lawyer seat on the board with voting power. The Bar's decision to reject the proposal particularly rankled black members because the Bar had just voted to create a fourth seat on the board for out-of-state members. "As long as we are second-class citizens, we don't want to sit at the table," said Lynn Whitfield, the chapter's then immediate past president.
The frustration was compounded by a pattern of black board members and candidates losing seats to white opponents in contested elections.
Last year, the pattern repeated itself when Don Horn, a Miami prosecutor whose success had earned him a job offer and partnership at one of the city's most prestigious firms, lost his seat after one term.
This year, both Whitfield and her successor at the National Bar, Allison K. Bethel, were seeking election to the board of governors. At press time Whitfield was running in a contested race for a board seat in Palm Beach County.
Bethel, director of civil rights prosecution for the Florida Attorney General's office, is running to fill the vacancy left by Latimer in Broward County. Plantation trial lawyer Bradley Winston had also qualified to run for the seat. Voting closes April 21.
Depending on the outcome of those two races, Latimer's death could leave the board of governors with no black lawyers among its members. A seat reserved for public members is held by a retired African-American educator.
It also leaves the state's black law association leaders with an opportunity -- and a quandary.
Does it honor or dishonor Latimer to suggest that this is an opportunity for the Bar to make room for more black lawyers in its leadership?
"Whether or not (Latimer's) position is vested or designated or a position of entitlement ... that's subject to debate," Knox says. Latimer, says Knox, "would want to ensure that no rules were broken ... no preferences to the exclusion of others in an unfair way."
At the same time, Knox says many African-American leaders have a sense that the rules have not always been applied in their favor. The last time this issue was debated before the Bar, "the Bar pulled out the rule book, and it was absolutely impossible for an African-American to win a seat in a contested election," Knox says.
Creating a buzz
If nothing else, Latimer's death has reignited interest in the Florida Bar among black lawyers.
"Many African-American lawyers like myself have been inspired by the void that he leaves to get more involved in the Florida Bar," Knox says.
Now, he says, there's "a sort of buzz" about who might be recruited to run for open seats in future elections.
Whatever happens, Knox says the acknowledgement that Latimer was in line to become Bar president is a huge step forward. "I think the discussions will get more and more serious," he says. "The pressure to recognize that this is a person who is first among equals is a major breakthrough -- a stereotype buster."
Miami lawyer H.T. Smith, a past president of the National Bar Association and another member of the UM law school class of 1973, says Latimer would have made a huge impact as Bar president, particularly in improving the Bar's credibility with its black members. "For the past five years, the Bar has been really reaching out to minority lawyers, but minority lawyers have not been responding," Smith says.
Smith, a sharp-tongued advocate for racial equality who helped lead a two-year tourism boycott of Miami-Dade County to protest inequality in the tourism industry, says Latimer also had the ear of the state's big law firms in a way that could have been very effective in pressing for more opportunities.
"It took me a long time to realize," Smith says, "you really need a person on the inside for the person outside to be effective."