Farewell, Justice Lewis article

Justice R. Fred Lewis

Born in Beckley, West Virginia, Justice R. Fred Lewis made Florida his home in 1965, when the offer of a basketball and academic scholarship from Florida Southern College drew him to Lakeland.  Upon graduating, he moved to Miami to attend the University of Miami School of Law; after receiving his law degree, he attended the United States Army Adjutant General School.  Following his discharge from the military, he entered private practice in Miami, specializing in civil trial and appellate litigation.  He remained in Miami until his appointment to the Florida Supreme Court in December 1998; he served as chief justice from 2006 – 2008.

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“Son, how’d you like to come to Florida?” asked the coach from Florida Southern College—visiting Beckley, West Virginia, to recruit the town’s most promising student athletes. “Holy Jesus, thank you!  I’ve been asked to go to heaven!” was the first thought of the bright, gifted basketball and baseball player—and future Florida Supreme Court justice.  For the young R. Fred Lewis, son of a coal miner from “the city that thrives on smokeless coal”—as Beckley has proudly called itself since the 1920s—moving to Florida was “beyond the dreams I had. Where I come from, only special people could go to Florida back then,” Justice Lewis elucidated.  “It was expensive, so it was a place you only heard about, like you hear about Disneyland.  And now I was being offered the opportunity not only to go to Florida but to live there and have it paid for!  —Not a bad deal,” he exclaimed. 

“And I’m still here.  Never went home again.  And I’ve never regretted it at all,” he added—doubtless in part because Florida offered him yet another “opportunity of a lifetime”: to be a Florida Supreme Court justice.  This prospect surpassed all imaginings for him: “I never in my wildest dreams ever thought I’d have this privilege, this opportunity to serve on the supreme court,” he emphasized.  Even after nearly 20 years, his gratitude for having been selected for this honor is still fresh: “I come to work each morning feeling very thankful.  Each morning, I say, ‘Thank you, God, for giving me the opportunity to serve the people of Florida.’  That’s a consistent thought every day,” he shared. 

But even though Justice Lewis has remained in Florida all these years, never far from his heart, or his conversations, are anecdotes about his hometown and the people, values, and customs that nurtured him: “I respect my background, my roots, and the people in Beckley; I love them dearly,” he said.  That he continues to be shaped deeply by his cultural inheritance is palpable to anyone who has visited him in his chambers: signs of his birthplace ornament his desk and walls, serving as constant reminders of his modest beginnings (the jar of coal from near his mother’s home—which also figures prominently in his official portrait—is probably the most stirring memorial). 

When asked how he navigated the twisty and unforeseeable journey from Beckley to Florida’s highest court, Justice Lewis was quick to attribute much of his success to the encouragement and guidance he received from his Beckley school teachers, whom he called “the backbone of the state,” adding, “There’s something about that little state; It doesn’t produce much of anything, but it does seem to produce good teachers.  In a small community like I come from,” he elaborated, “teaching is probably the highest profession.  My dad didn’t care a hoot about lawyers and judges, but, boy, teachers and coaches to him were the epitome.  He never went to school, and he considered teachers as bastions of the community.”

For Justice Lewis, teachers are “formative people,” sources of constancy, stability, and continuity, and they played a particularly important and poignant role in his early years.  He grew up in “a rough and tumble community” with a dad whom he described as “a rough and tumble guy.”  Even though his mom “had no education—she left school when she was 15 to marry my dad”—it was she who provided him with “a semblance of genteelness and social appropriateness.”  But his mother passed away when he was very young.  “After she died, I didn’t have any relatives around who could help mold me or guide me to where I should be,” he explained.  “It was my teachers who filled that role, helping me understand what I should and shouldn’t do.  When they corrected, it was not done as a punishment; it was very loving direction.  And they did it in such a way that I grew from it.  They watched after what I was doing and encouraged me.” 

He called his teachers “good, loving, kind people who were very interested in the children and looked after them.  For them,” he observed, “teaching was truly a profession, it wasn’t just a job, and their support built in me a trust and confidence, a respect, and love for educators.  It just became part of who I was.  And that doesn’t leave you; throughout life, it’s always there.”  He then spontaneously reeled off the names of all his elementary school teachers, in grade order—and offered to recite the names of all his junior high and high school teachers as well!     

Justice Lewis concurred that the early and profound guiding influence of his teachers could easily account for his passionate, hands-on commitment, as a justice, to Florida’s teachers and its students.  For instance, consider his longstanding and extensive involvement with the Justice Teaching Institute, a program that invites up to 25 Florida teachers to the supreme court each year for a five-day education program designed to help them introduce their students to the vital roles courts play in our society. 

Moreover, consider his establishment, while serving as chief justice, of Justice Teaching, an initiative that has grown to pair more than 4,000 volunteer judges and lawyers with elementary, middle, and high schools in Florida to enhance civic and law-related education.  As soon as he came to the court, years before Justice Teaching became formalized, he explained, “I started going out on my own to the schools to teach the kids.”  He described “seeing an extreme need that needed to be addressed because of the woeful status of civic education for our kids.  Providing them with good, correct information to me was of critical value.”  He counts the founding of Justice Teaching as one of his greatest achievements as a justice.  Indeed, he was nationally honored for this effort: in 2014, he received the prestigious Sandra Day O’Connor Award for the Advancement of Civics Education, which recognizes Justice Teaching as one of the top civic education programs in the country.       

Responding to a question about other accomplishments of which he is particularly proud, Justice Lewis noted that, “As we rotate through the front office [i.e., serve as chief justice], each of us has ideas about concerns that we think ought to be addressed.”  He served as chief from 2006 – 08, and that was his opportunity to focus on some of the issues that he felt needed attention.  In addition to wanting to do something about the state of civic education in Florida, Justice Lewis was troubled by the increase in the number of repeat offenders with untreated mental illnesses coming into Florida’s courts.  To address this issue, he convened the court system’s first inter-branch mental health summit, which culminated in the development and proposal of a comprehensive strategy for addressing the needs of people with mental illnesses who are caught up in the criminal justice system.  He knows the progress in implementing this strategy has been slow, but he is “thankful for baby steps; I understand you can’t climb a mountain all in the first day.” 

As chief justice, he also established a committee to develop a survey with which to audit all court facilities in the state, with the goal of identifying and removing barriers that inhibit access to justice for people with disabilities.  “I firmly believe that the denial of access to a disabled individual is as heinous and illegitimate as racial or ethnic bias or any other barrier to getting into the courthouse,” he emphasized.  But he did face some hurdles: “Our biggest obstacle regarding architectural accessibility is that the courts do not own or control the trial court buildings,” he pointed out, “but I thought it important that we at least identify the problems in an honest and open way, in an informational way, to help the counties make the necessary changes.”  He has been “so pleased with the results” of the survey and the counties’ responses, and he praised the “many wonderful people from all across the state who helped with this.” 

In addition, because of his background in civil litigation, Justice Lewis saw the need for better jury instructions in complex cases.  When he was chief justice, he finally had a chance to do something about it: he created the Supreme Court Committee on Standard Jury Instructions—Contract and Business Cases, which produced a complete, stand-alone set of jury instructions for contract and business litigation.  “For years, I had been the liaison to the Standard Jury Instructions Committee—the negligence committee—and every time I’d ask that group, ‘Why don’t we expand the standard jury instructions to cover other areas?’ the response was, ‘Oh, it can’t be done.’  Well, all you gotta do is tell me it can’t be done, and I’ll show you it can be done!  I knew it could be.  The question was having the energy and the will to do it.  So I was very pleased when we were able to establish these instructions as a permanent fixture; I consider it to be extremely important to the people of Florida and to the trial lawyers.”

And, finally, Justice Lewis called to mind some of his efforts to implement updates and improvements to the Florida Supreme Court Building.  “I was concerned about this building,” he admitted.  The building was new when the court moved into it in 1949, but “It never had a replacement program in place that office buildings typically have to ensure they keep current.”  He had the carpet replaced with more durable coverings—granite and tile—and authorized other functional improvements.  He also had the supreme court’s four floors renumbered: the floors used to be labeled subbasement, basement, first floor, and second floor, but “I told the marshal I don’t want any basements, any subbasements.  It didn’t seem right.  I don’t want anybody to have to say, ‘I go to work in the subbasement of the Florida Supreme Court.’  We’re going to number our floors one to four.  That to me was a dignity kind of thing.”  The interior of the building continues to be fully functional and to look beautiful today, thanks to the improvements Justice Lewis initiated.

Certainly, his years on the court have not always been easy, and 2012 was particularly difficult: “The loss of my daughter Lindsay, of course, had a major impact on our family.  And the loss of my father that year, who lived with us and died when he was 102.  And all of this happened during that merit retention period,” when he and Justices Pariente and Quince were gearing up for their final merit retention votes and faced organized opposition from several conservative political groups.  “The impact was at least perceived by my family as being heightened because you couldn’t get away from it,” Justice Lewis remarked; “You’d get up every morning, and something else was going wrong.”  That was an unspeakably painful period for him and his family. 

However, he has no regrets about his decision to serve on the court.  “As you get older,” he philosophized, “you recognize how short life really is.  I could have had more fun not coming here.  But I probably could not have accomplished much of anything other than representing my own clients.  And that’s what tipped it over for me to come here: I came to an understanding that it was time for me to do more for more people than just my client base.  And to try to get it right, not just help them win.” 

Asked if he’ll miss anything when he leaves the court, without pause he said, “I will miss participating in the process to get it right, that’s what I will miss.  Because I think what this court does and needs to do affects so many people in Florida, and I will miss the opportunity to assist in that process.  It may be egotistical to think I have a worthy idea of what’s right.  But I do believe, based on my background and where I come from, that there are certain things that are right and certain things that are not right.  There are certain fundamental things that are the way they need to be to be fair to all people, and I’ll miss having a role in that.”  In the end, he said, “I’m truly, truly thankful that I’ve had this opportunity, and I know in my heart that, although I do make mistakes, I’ve tried my very best to get it right in serving the people of Florida.”      

By Beth Schwartz, Court Publications Writer