February 6, 2023
Florida Icon: Craig Waters

Photo: Florida Supreme Court

"The first obligation of judges and courts is to maintain the independence of the judiciary," says Craig Waters, retired Florida Supreme Court communications director.

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Florida Icon: Craig Waters

(Retired communications director, Florida Supreme Court, Tallahassee; age 66)

Art Levy | 12/7/2022

When the internet came along, just as a personal hobby, I decided I was going to figure out how to create web pages. Later, I set up the first set of web pages for the Florida Supreme Court, and I continued to expand these web pages, which was very novel at the time. I knew I was innovating but didn’t really understand the full extent of where it was going. A lot of the judges and attorneys at the time took a very dim view of the web, but Bush v. Gore was an event that started to change people’s minds.

I went to an agricultural high school in the north end of Escambia County. I was always something of an intellectual nerd, so I didn’t fit in terribly well, although I was really lucky. The school had the best advanced placement program in the county, and the teachers were very aware of the college opportunities that were available to me. I took the PSAT test in the 11th grade and got the highest score in the county and ultimately ended up going to Brown University. I wanted a college experience that was completely different than the world I had grown up in.

In Florida, I think the nomination process for appeals court judges needs to go back to what it once was — when the nominating commissions were independent of any branch of government. Over time, though, the nominating commissions in Florida have become creatures of the governor, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

My last two summers at Brown, I ended up getting internships back in Pensacola with the Pensacola News Journal. My first summer was on the copy desk. My second summer was writing and reporting, and I really enjoyed it. That greatly influenced me. Ultimately, when I graduated from Brown, I went back to Pensacola and worked for the newspaper. I started out at the bureau in Milton, Florida, but ultimately ended up on the court beat in Pensacola, and I managed to cover some very interesting trials. That’s when I became fascinated with the law.

One of the things that really dawned on me in the 2016 election — because I was watching what was going on behind the scenes and hearing the things that the politicians were saying — was that it was obvious to me that the biggest goal to a lot of these longtime politicians was not the White House. It was the U.S. Supreme Court. They were advocating for the White House someone who would put on the U.S. Supreme Court the people they wanted. It’s almost like a deal was cut. We’ll give you this if you give us that. That was the price that was paid during that election. Of course, we’re still paying a price for that today. The current division in the nation is a direct result.

I decided I wanted to be a media lawyer and went to law school at the University of Florida. My last summer, I got a job with a Parker Thomson’s media law firm in Miami, and I was convinced I was going to come back and work there after law school, but in the meantime, I got an offer from Florida Supreme Court Justice Rosemary Barkett to come work for her. I had applied for that job as kind of an exploration, but the rule back then was if you applied and the judge accepted you, you could not say no. That was just considered to be a slap in the face of a Supreme Court justice and not something you did. So, I thought I would work two years for Rosemary Barkett and then work for Parker Thomson.

But Justice Gerald Kogan had been elected as chief justice-elect, and he came to me and said he wanted to improve the communications the court had with the press and the public, and he said I had a great background for that. He said the initiative would focus on transparency, openness and accountability and that I could set up the program any way I wanted. Well, I couldn’t turn that down.

Florida’s long history of openness in state government, its Sunshine Laws, is I think something that Florida has done incredibly well. But I’m concerned that it’s under threat right now. Openness has worked well in the past. Let’s not abandon it now.

The number of reporters became larger and larger. The satellite trucks had rumbled in (for the 2000 election). Announcing the decisions was intense, but the last one, the opinion on the statewide recount, that was by far the most intense. By that point in time, the mood in Tallahassee, and probably to some degree in the nation, was getting to be more divisive — and the security staff was picking up on that. That last time, when I announced the opinion in the last case — when I went down into the rotunda to get ready to go out — one of the law enforcement officers wanted to put a bulletproof vest on me. I had not even thought of the possibility of being shot until that point in time.

The entire globe was biting their fingernails trying to figure out who the next president was going to be and it all hinged on these arguments in the Florida Supreme Court. One of the components that made our handling of Bush v. Gore successful was the website in two senses. First, we were placing the documents online for anyone to read, no matter where they were in the entire world, and second, we were streaming live video of the oral arguments. Until Bush v. Gore, people didn’t realize how important those two things were.

The first obligation of judges and courts is to maintain the independence of the judiciary.

With the job I had, the intrusion into my personal life could be pretty intense at times. I’m gay. My husband and I have been together for many years, and I can tell you there were times when that issue would come up. I actually got this truly strange e-mail one time, right smack in the middle of Bush v. Gore, from a very deluded person basically saying that they were going to out me unless I managed to throw the election for Bush. The truly bizarre thing about that was I was already out.

Tags: Florida Icon, Feature

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