February 29, 2024
Former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court Fred Lewis

Photo: Mark Wallheiser


Former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court Fred Lewis

Art Levy | 8/26/2019

A judge must not only be independent of politics, but must be independent of himself or herself. None of us should stand and vote on a decision on a case based upon on what we want it to be. It needs to follow the law. The politics of the day are spoiling the institutions that protect our freedoms.

I was playing high school basketball in Huntington, W.V., in January of 1965 and a gentleman comes down to the dressing room after the game, and he says, ‘How would you like to move to Florida?’ It was by happenstance. Florida Southern was playing Marshall University that night in the same arena following my high school game, and that’s how they saw me play. It was a cold and slushy and awful night, and that just made Florida all the more tempting. The opportunity to go to Florida Southern was like somebody offering me an opportunity to go to heaven.

Lawton Chiles was the kind of man who looked you in the eye, and you would trust and believe what he had to say.

I was born in Raleigh County, W.V., in the center of the bituminous coal fields. My father worked around the coal mines until they basically worked out. That’s what they call it up there when they close the mines. I remember the trauma of the mines closing and the unemployment that followed.

Caring about the other guy, it’s a life value. You need to understand what the other guy is going through.

My mom died when I was 10 or 11. My dad and me were not only father and son, but we were great friends. Even though I’m sure my dad did not want me to move to Florida, he did not want to stand in the way of anything that would advance my life, but I’m sure it broke his heart.

My one-word answer to the accusations of judicial activism would be total and absolute disgust. It operated on falsehoods. It operated on misinformation. It operated on out-and-out lies. What it ultimately turned out to be is that any time somebody didn’t agree with a court decision, they would claim ‘judicial activism.’

I viewed Bush v. Gore at the time, and I still do, as a very simple, direct case that was brought to the Florida Supreme Court as an interpretation of our election laws. There was no constitutional issue ever presented to our court. There was no challenge to anything of a constitutional nature. That arose only after the case went to the big court in Washington, D.C.

Our baby daughter, Lindsay, had a mitochondrial disorder. It’s a condition that attacks the central nervous system, so Lindsay was legally blind, and she became deaf, and then in the last two weeks of her life, she lost the use of her legs. This was in 1978, and there was nothing in the textbooks about the disease then. Still, after 30 years, they still haven’t figured out the entire chemical operation of what this disease does and is.

In 2006, I promised the public that I was going to start the broadest civic education program ever attempted. It was called Justice Teaching. Folks laughed at me and they said, ‘Lawyers aren’t going to give you the time of day.’ But I believe in lawyers, and I believe in judges, and I trust them. I was able to put together an army. We now have more than 4,700 lawyers and judges that go into all of the schools all across Florida and provide civic education lessons.

My fun days are sitting on the deck or on the beach down on Alligator Point.

Following my time on the court, I had inquiries and offers to go to work in the private sector with law firms all across the state, and I was in the process of vetting those when I got a phone call from Anne Kerr, the president of Florida Southern College. She says: ‘Fred, would you come by and have coffee with me some day?’ So my wife Judy and I show up, and Anne clicks on a PowerPoint of what the school is doing, and she hits on the academics, the social, the athletics and then I see my photograph, and above it is written ‘eminent professor of law and letters.’ She says she wanted me to come back as a professor, and I mentioned my Justice Teaching program could certainly be an asset to wherever it lands, and we could bring it here, too.

Look at me. My favorite food is everything.

The Terri Schiavo case was sad particularly for me because I had a disabled child. The Florida Legislature had statutes on how to deal with these kinds of circumstances — we had a young woman fall into a coma, remained that way for quite a while, and her husband filed to cut off life support. On the other hand, you had a mother and father that were fighting with all their heart and soul to keep any chance alive for their daughter. Well, you tell me how I would vote if I’m in that same circumstance. I would have fought like crazy to keep my daughter alive, but I couldn’t vote that way. I had to vote the way that the statute was drawn. The trial judge followed the law, did everything that should have been done. That poor trial judge was basically excommunicated from his community, and all he was doing was following the law.

My father’s dream was that I would be a professional baseball player. I was the starting point guard on the Florida Southern basketball team all four years, and I also played on the baseball team. The Detroit Tigers, because they did their spring training in Lakeland, had seen me play baseball and offered me a rookie contract. Well, I had also made application to law schools in Florida, and I was accepted at all of them. I knew if I had a chance to go to law school, I better go. When I told my dad that I thought I needed to get started on my life and I didn’t think I was going to make it in baseball, that was the first time I ever saw him cry.


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