Farewell, Justice Quince article

Justice Peggy A. Quince

Born in Norfolk, Virginia, Justice Peggy A. Quince has been a Florida resident since 1978, when she settled in Bradenton and opened a law office to practice general civil law.  She began a thirteen-and-a-half year tenure with the Florida Office of the Attorney General, Criminal Division, in 1980; as an assistant attorney general, she handled appeals in the Second DCA, the Florida Supreme Court (including death penalty cases), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and the US Supreme Court.  Then in 1993, she was selected to serve on the Second DCA—the first African-American woman to be appointed to a Florida district court of appeal.  She also has the distinction of being the first African-American woman to serve on the state’s highest court, to which she was appointed in 1998; she was chief justice from 2008 – 2010.

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Open to the public since 1996, the Florida Supreme Court’s Passing of the Gavel ceremonies tend to be uplifting, hope-full rituals that celebrate the achievements of the out-going chief and give voice to the aspirations of the incoming chief.  In keeping with this tradition, when the gavel passed from Justice Lewis to Justice Quince, the new chief justice spoke ardently about some of the issues she hoped to spotlight in her two years as the chief administrative officer of the judicial branch.  In particular, she emphasized the branch’s indelible commitment to Florida’s children and families, reminding listeners of the need to keep working to ensure that all children in the court system have a voice.  To augment the pool of volunteers authorized to speak for these children in court, she urged attorneys to become guardians ad litem and to support a program she hoped to establish to address the needs of older children aging out of the foster care system.  She also pledged to continue addressing the hardships faced by individuals with serious mental illnesses who become involved in the justice system, thanking Justice Lewis for his leadership in this endeavor.  And she extolled his court diversity and sensitivity awareness program and vowed to sustain that effort.  Finally, she spoke about her goal of advancing the production of a book that captures the oral and written histories of Florida’s first black lawyers.

Against the backdrop of this buoyant, auspicious ceremony, however, history was about to lob some huge challenges at the new chief justice.  For the Passing of the Gavel took place on June 27, 2008, only a few months after what would later be designated the official beginning of the Great Recession.  The second year of Chief Justice Lewis’ tenure had already suffered fallout from the financial upheaval: between October 2007 and May 2008, the judicial branch was hit with three rounds of budget cuts, resulting in a 9.8 percent reduction from its original 2007 – 08 appropriations.  But the consequences to Florida’s courts, and to state government generally, were particularly uncompromising through the span of Chief Justice Quince’s incumbency. 

While she was chief, among the ramifications of the economic debacle for the judicial branch were austere staff cuts (the branch lost nearly 300 full-time positions), stiff reductions in operating budgets, a hiring freeze, a travel freeze, the curtailment of judicial education programs, the temporary suspension of some court committees and task forces, and a two percent pay cut for elected officials (a reduction that disproportionally affected Florida’s judges)—all at a time when demands on the courts dramatically increased, as they generally do at difficult economic junctures.  Simultaneously, like the rest of the world, Florida’s courts were trying to prepare for the possibility of an influenza pandemic, a disaster that could conceivably disrupt court operations for up to 18 months—precisely when courts would likely be facing an increase in emergency matters and case filings.  And also within this timeframe, the mortgage foreclosure crisis hit its peak, provoking a colossal spike in backlogged foreclosure cases. 

In the course of this precarious period, even some of the long-familiar faces on the court changed: Justices Cantero and Bell resigned in fall 2008, and Justices Anstead and Wells retired in early 2009.  Chief Justice Quince was soon sharing the bench with four new jurists: Justices Canady, Polston, Labarga, and Perry.

Despite the intense challenges, Chief Justice Quince spearheaded some significant efforts to improve the administration of justice during her term.  For instance, she established the Judicial Branch Governance Study Workgroup, which examined the structure and functions of the governance system (e.g., policy-making, budgeting, rulemaking, leadership, decision-making, planning, and intergovernmental relations) and made recommendations to improve the effective and efficient management of the branch.  (Take this link to read about the workgroup.)  In addition, under her direction, a statewide, multidisciplinary Dependency Court Improvement Panel was created to improve courtroom practices and decision-making in dependency cases.  She also appointed a task force to address the effects on the courts of the mortgage foreclosure crisis.  And she laid the groundwork for the creation of the Florida Innocence Commission, which was directed “to conduct a comprehensive study of the causes of wrongful conviction and of measures to prevent such convictions.”  (This link goes to the administrative order creating the commission.) 

Not surprisingly, however, most of her time and energy had to be trained on figuring out ways to stabilize the operations of the court and on developing a solution for providing long-term, sustainable funding so that the courts could continue to meet their constitutional obligations.  Throughout this extraordinarily turbulent period, she led the judicial branch with aplomb, providing what Justice Canady, when the gavel passed to him in 2010, called “firm and steady leadership.”     

The daily stresses of those two years, however, have in no way tarnished Justice Quince’s memories of her nearly 20 years on the supreme court bench.  She was quick to admit that she’ll miss many aspects of the job, especially the people with whom she’s worked side by side all these years, many of whom she has “become very attached to.”  She also knows she’ll reminisce fondly about the extraordinary diversity of her responsibilities as a justice: she described “driving to the supreme court building every morning, knowing there’s going to be a different case, even a different kind of case, each day.  Today, I might be consumed with a death penalty case; tomorrow, it might be a bar discipline.  It is the variety of issues that makes me look forward to coming to work every day.” 

She will also miss playing a part in the supreme court’s deeply meaningful work and the far-reaching ramifications of its decisions.  She has been humbled by the solemnity and consequence of the cases she has been called upon to decide.  Some of these cases have “absolute importance”—especially death penalty cases, which represent a large portion of the justices’ work and require “a higher degree of attention and time.”  Others are high profile cases that have had national significance.   Naturally, the first such case she mentioned was Election 2000, calling it a “once in a lifetime experience” and “one of the shining moments for the court.”  She remembers those 36 days as a “very challenging, intense, focused time.”  And she still marvels that, despite the substantial workload addition and the intense public scrutiny, and despite the throngs of reporters, photographers, demonstrators, and sightseers clustered densely in front of the supreme court building, the justices still successfully “carried on with our regular docket at the same time.”  

But she was quick to point out that most of the supreme court’s cases are not high profile, and she emphasized that “Our other cases are no less important, for they touch on a wide variety of issues that affect so many people in Florida.  Personal injury, criminal law, family law: whatever decision the court makes, apply it to the 20 million people in the state of Florida.  Whether they attract media attention or not, the cases that come before this court will impact a great number of people for years to come,” she underscored.  Along these lines, she would offer the following advice to a prospective or new justice, if invited: “Even what looks like a simple case with a simple solution has far-reaching impact and consequences.  Each case needs to be taken very seriously.”

Once she’s retired, Justice Quince still intends to continue engaging in some of the important civics-related activities she’s enjoyed these many years as a judge.  Judges, both active and retired, are encouraged to take part in teaching audiences of all ages, from all walks of life, about the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, and she has no intention of withdrawing from this role once she steps down.  Indeed, she confessed that she has “already been booked” to give talks to numerous school groups, civic groups, church groups, and bar associations. 

In addition, after taking what she called a “four-to-six-month breather before getting into anything,” Justice Quince has plans to immerse herself deeply in some of the very causes she highlighted at her Passing of the Gavel ceremony.  Because she feels called to do something to help “the many young kids of this state who have no voice about what is happening to them,” first on her list is to become a guardian ad litem: “I want to do what I can to assist these children who are being taken care of by the state, involved in dependency and termination of parental rights and foster care.  Once the state has taken them from their parents,” she explained, “I believe it is incumbent on us to make sure these children are treated as well as our own biological children.  We need people advocating for them, committed to their best interests.” 

One of five children raised by their father in a single-parent household, Justice Quince reflected on the critical role her dad played in her own childhood.  For this reason, she said, “I believe there should be someone in everyone’s life to help them through the rough patches.  When I was 18, going off to college, I was looking forward to not having my father there to tell me what to do all the time.  I felt so grown up!  But I knew if there was any issue, I could call my father.”  She realizes how fortunate she was—for “Many of these foster kids don’t have anyone they can call on.”  She also pointed out that many of them “are at an age where no one wants to adopt them.  A 13-year-old is not likely to be adopted and will probably age out of foster care.  Yet this is a crucial point in their lives.”  For they age out at the very time in their lives when they have to start making so many important decisions: “They have to think about getting an apartment, continuing their education, taking care of their finances, buying a car.  They have legal issues to deal with, personal issues.  In the normal scheme of things,” she added, “they could talk about these issues with their parents around the dining table.  But these foster care kids often don’t have the benefit of that.”  As a guardian ad litem, Justice Quince will be able to be that person for some of these kids.

Many people suffer some anxiety when thinking about retirement; they fear they won’t have enough to do to fill their time or they won’t be occupied gainfully.  But Justice Quince clearly has it figured out for herself: “The key to retiring is having meaningful things to do with your life,” she declared.  For her, this meaningfulness will include “being a guardian ad litem, traveling, and speaking to civic organizations, school groups, church groups.”  With such a richly tapestried future, she is quite certain that retirement will offer many rewards.