Wells sworn in as Chief Justice

first_img July 15, 2000 Gary Blankenship Associate Editor Regular News Wells sworn in as Chief Justice Wells sworn in as Chief Justice Associate Editor On the 100th anniversary, to the day, his grandfather became a county judge, Charles T. Wells was sworn in as Florida’s 49th Supreme Court Chief Justice. He promised a packed Supreme Court audience that included legislators, Gov. Jeb Bush, former justices and Bar officials that he would bring hard work and dedication during his two-year term as the head of the state’s third branch of government. But if anyone thought the ceremony would be a dour affair, they were soon dissuaded. Humor was the trademark, touching on topics from outgoing Chief Justice Major B. Harding’s predilection for bow ties to Wells’ well-known support for University of Florida athletics. Officials from all three branches used humor during the ceremonial June 29 session to dispute there are serious conflicts between the courts, the Governor and the legislature. Wells also addressed those supposed conflicts during his comments at the end of the session. “I do not and I will not hesitate in making plain my steadfast belief in the absolute necessity of independence in judicial decisionmaking, but I also make plain my respect for the independent roles of the legislative branch and the executive branch,” he said. The three branches must recognize they are interdependent as well as independent and each has the duty of bringing “the optimum of that branch’s unique services to the people who have given each of us the unique opportunity to serve,” Wells said. He added that he has frequently contacted the offices of Bush, House Speaker John Thrasher and Senate President Toni Jennings and each has unstintingly given him help preparing to lead the state’s court system. “They are my friends, and I know that friendship will grow as we work together to serve the people of this great state,” Wells said. His efforts will build on the work and dedication of past justices and past courts, Wells said, adding, “I can only pledge to work tirelessly to carry on their good works, relentlessly in the cause of equal justice and fairness for all the people of this state.” The courts face four major problems, the new Chief Justice said: Cases are seen to take too long, cost too much, minorities believe the system is unfair to them and the public doesn’t understand the court system. “We have much, much to do and I plan to be proactive in doing it,” he said. Wells cited his hope to speed up the handling of cases in court, including death penalty appeals which have been a politically sensitive issue. “Those of you who have read my opinions know that I strongly believe in and am committed to timeliness in decisions as a priority goal. I very much believe that justice delayed is often justice denied,” he said. “I am well aware of the reality of a number of inmates who have been on death row since the 1970s and 80s, and I am dedicated to have those individual cases moved to a just, fair and final adjudication.” Wells said the courts face a time of great change, but also have made great changes in the century just ended. He said the magnitude of those alterations were driven home to him after his grandfather, Joel Wells, was appointed and began serving as a Washington County judge 100 years to the day before Wells accepted the gavel as chief justice. Harding used his comments as outgoing chief justice to point to recent court accomplishments and point to historical precedents that point out the importance of an independent judiciary. The accomplishments include improving public knowledge about the court system through a variety of educational programs, including the Supreme Court’s Internet website, which Harding called unequaled in the country. The court has begun addressing the problem of pro se litigants, is working with the legislature to carry out the constitutional mandate of having the state take over more court financing from counties, and has begun looking at ways children are treated in the court system, including in delinquency matters. An independent judiciary was the creation of the country’s founders, Harding said, so “their posterity would live in a free and ordered society.” He noted he and his wife recently visited Hungary, which is struggling to create a democracy after years of communist rule. Judges from several Eastern European countries have also visited the court in past years as they strive to create a court system for their new democracies. “The concept that a judge is free to make a decision without prior consultation with a party boss was foreign to them,” he said. “I am happy to live in American and I am happy to live in Florida where the rule of law prevails,” Harding added. Bar President Herman Russomanno represented Florida lawyers at the ceremony, and he praised Harding’s accomplishments, including building trust in the courts, and said the state will be well-served by Wells. “You have been a lawyer’s lawyer and you are a judge’s judge,” Russomanno said. “Justice Wells will be an outstanding Chief Justice. The lawyers of this state are proud to have you and the citizens of this state are lucky to have you.” Thrasher, in his comments, instantly took aim at reports of bad feelings between the legislature and the court. He said he was in the court’s lawyer lounge practicing his comments, beginning with “May it please the court.” He said a justice came up behind him and said, “It’s about time you did something to please the court,” as the courtroom erupted in laughter and Harding quipped, “We have taken note of that.” “We have a healthy relationship, just as our founding fathers intended we have,” Thrasher said. “I have always had a deep and profound respect for you, Justice Harding. We’ve known each other for a long time. “While I may not have agreed with each and every ruling, I respect your principles and the strength of your convictions.” Jennings too noted the traditional “May it please the court” introduction used by those appearing before the justices, and then joked, “Nothing we do ever pleases the court.” But in reality, she said she enjoyed working with Harding, and the court and legislature had a good relationship. Jennings said the government works best when the three branches work together and have a healthy respect for each other. “There are challenges ahead; the court will not face them alone,” Jennings said. “We have the same responsibility and that is to protect the rights of our citizens.” Jennings, who represents an Orlando Senate district, also praised Wells as an Orlando native made good, closing with, “On behalf of the Florida Senate, go Gators.” As Attorney General Bob Butterworth went to the podium, Harding noted he was not wearing a bow tie — a reference to Harding’s installation ceremony two years earlier when Butterworth and many others in the audience wore bow ties in deference to Harding’s sartorial preference. Butterworth, without missing a beat, brought down the house by replying, “With all due respect Chief Justice, you’re history.” But then he produced the bow tie he wore two years ago, affixed to a plaque. “The official bow tie of the Attorney General, worn over the last two years, has been retired,” Butterworth explained, presenting the plaque to Harding. He said the outgoing Chief Justice had “inspired a renaissance of the bow ties, I have even been persuaded to tie one on.” He praised Wells for his “rock solid integrity” and his “fairness and common sense,” adding, “I can honestly say we have a wonderful Supreme Court in the State of Florida.” Bush praised Harding, saying, “You have done an incredible job teaching this rookie Governor about the history of Florida.” The Governor said he’s impressed with Wells because “every opinion that leaves his chambers reflects hours of hard work. I know that he will give everyone who comes in here a fair shake.” Wells is a native of Florida, and a third generation lawyer. He noted in addition to his grandfather being a judge, his father was at law school in the 1920s with future Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice Richard Ervin. Wells graduated from William R. Boone High School in Orlando and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida in 1961. Three years later, he received his law degree from UF. He practiced law at the Orlando firm of Maguire, Voorhis and Wells, P.A., until 1960, when he served for one year as a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. He returned to the firm in 1970, and left in 1976 to form his own firm of Wells, Gattis, Hallowes and Carpenter, where he practiced until appointed to the Supreme Court in 1994 by Gov. Lawton Chiles. He also served on the Bar Board of Governors from 1990 until he joined the court. “I believe staunchly in the work of The Florida Bar and I come here proudly as a person who spent his career as a work-a-day lawyer and a product of The Florida Bar,” Wells said at the installation ceremony. Wells and his wife, Linda Fischer Wells, who is also an attorney and former partner with the Carlton Fields firm, have three children: Charles Talley Wells, Jr., a lawyer in Orlando; Shelley Wells Collins, a medical doctor in Miami; and Ashley Dawn Wells, a law student at Northwestern University. (In another lighthearted moment in the installation ceremony, the three children, and their spouses, presented Wells with a caricature portrait.) A complete profile of Wells will be published in the October Bar Journal.last_img

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