by Gabe Kaimowitz, aka Gabe Hillel – Guest columnist
The Florida Bar, led by its executive director John F. Harkness, in 2014, appears to have targeted this civil rights attorney, and several black lawyers, for disciplinary actions, because of the positive reputation they have had in African American communities in Florida. Those lawyers defy the image of compliant blacks favored by the Bar.
Under Mr. Harkness, the Bar’s director since 1983, and a throwback to the 60’s, when he was president of the all-white Florida Blue Key (“FBK” 1923-to the present), at the University of Florida, the legal organization has been hostile to the practice of civil rights law, at least since the 1970s.
Civil rights law classes rarely if ever have been offered as part of the Bar’s continuing legal education program. Florida Supreme Court majority opinions which upheld the State’s right to defy the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and other cases, at least through 1957, have not been overturned. Threats of withholding of federal funding finally forced many Florida school districts to desegregate 15 years after that high court decision.
What is at stake now? University of Florida Prof. Jack Davis once put it this way: “After the 1920s, state leadership generally condemned lynchings,” he says, “mainly because Florida was becoming a tourist state.” Today Florida announced that the number of tourists last year set a new record for the fourth straight year.
Why have lawyers become responsible for the hype of Florida as a progressive state with a fair legal system, and equal opportunity for minorities and women? For decades, FBK has relied on historians like members David Colburn and Michael Gannon. They have portrayed Florida as a state making steady progress in relations, at least during the years when Democrats were governors, since Leroy Collins took office in the 1950s.
However, recent prize-winning books about Florida have countered that hype of a progressive state, and a fair and balanced legal system. Among them are National Book Award nominee T. D. Allman’s Finding Florida—The True History of the Sunshine State, 2013; Pulitzer Prize winner Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove, 2012, about the breakdown of the Florida legal system in Lake County, post World War II; National Book Award nominee and legal commentator Lisa Bloom’s Suspicion Nation, 2014.
A New York Times report on Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015, (NYT online version) about the continuing racial nightmare in Florida during spring training after Jackie Robinson joined the major league Brooklyn Dodgers certainly did not help. The myth of a Florida more progressive than other Southern states is rapidly fading here.
The Bar is believed to have started taking such action vigorously, against civil rights and African-American lawyers and a judge, after the formation of the Dream Defenders who sat in the Governor’s office in the summer of 2013 to protest against government indifference to the killing of Trayvon Martin after the acquittal of George Zimmerman.
The lawyers who have been targeted include Christopher Chestnut, one of the few blacks ever listed among Super Lawyers in Florida; Willie Gary, the most successful African-American attorney in the State; Larry Colleton, the first black attorney in the U.S. Court for the Middle District of Florida; Jake Rose, of West Palm Beach, an attorney who succeeded in getting $325,000 for a black physician who was denied a permit by Orlando to open an abortion clinic.
Other blacks with visible disciplinary records or who have been disbarred, include Jim Sweeting, a voting rights attorney; Joe Morell, former Eatonville City Attorney; Byron Perkins, son of the late Paul Perkins, who was wrongly charged with obstruction of justice before he died; and Harry Morrall, who was frequently appointed in Orange County, to represent parties in difficult cases.
When the Florida Bar began to take action against this attorney in 2013, Supreme Court Justice Jim Perry disqualified himself from participation. That action remains open since a request for rehearing more than two months ago. This attorney knew Justice Perry 25 years ago when his partners were Harry Lamb, who was disbarred, and Evelyn Golden who later was kicked off the bench.
Justice Perry went on to “integrate” the Seminole County bench, and eventually he became chief judge in the 18th Judicial Circuit. However, there seems to have been no African-American on the bench in that circuit in 2013 when proceedings began against Mr. Zimmerman.
Last year, in addition to the aforementioned disciplinary actions, in December, a black female judge, Judith W. Hawkins, was removed from office. Janice Jennings, who spent years as an assistant attorney in the Office of the Florida Attorney General, was suspended, after her mental illness became public. Whites with comparable difficulties somehow seem to avoid such punishments.
Perhaps the final blow to a positive image for this Bar association in race relations came at the end of 2014 when an African-American sought to oppose a white candidate for the organization presidency. The Bar had nurtured Eugene Pettis, of Ft. Lauderdale, to be its first African-American president in 65 years, for 2013-14. Pettis was an unopposed civil rights defense attorney, that is, he represents law enforcement, schools and local governments against discrimination complaints. During his tenure, Pettis gently chided the nearly 100,000 member organization to consider with great civility the embarrassment of having such few judges of color. Would another black again focus on that message?
West Palm Beach’s David Prather threw his hat into the Bar ring and was in it to win it, the Bar presidency against a white, when the Daily Business Review asked:
Should Lawyer Arrested for DUI Head Florida Bar | Daily Business …
“Nov 24, 2014 … Supporters of West Palm Beach lawyer David Prather, a candidate for Florida Bar president, said his 2012 drunken-driving arrest doesn’t affect …” Mr. Prather resigned several weeks later, for other reasons of course.
Such questions generally are not pursued in public in Florida. Since the passing of the St. Petersburg Times, media in this state seem to understand that positive stories about the good works of lawyers and judges are more likely for them to get Florida Bar media awards and mention than the less civil approach once taken by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who “followed the money” and brought down a United States president.
Gabe Hillel can be reached at: email@example.com.