High court's justices pass gavel to Lewis
Published: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - R. Fred Lewis, known as the "education justice," was sworn in Friday as the Florida Supreme Court's 52nd chief justice, a job that rotates among the high court's seven members every two years.
Former Chief Justice Barbara Pariente, who will remain on the bench, passed the gavel to Lewis after playfully swinging the wooden mallet as he backed off in mock fear.
Lewis has made it a practice to visit schools three or four times every month since taking office Jan. 1, 1999, and he announced plans to launch "the most comprehensive approach to support civic education that's ever been attempted."
"The cornerstone of the next two years will be justice teaching," Lewis said. "We're going to join hands with the Florida Bar, we're going to create a permanent statewide structure for reaching out to every school in the state of Florida."
One justice will chair the effort that will include judges from across the state. Lewis said a professional adviser will help with lesson plans, training and education.
Lewis, whose wife, Judith, is a teacher, said teachers gave him guidance after he lost his mother at an early age while growing up in Beckley, W.Va.
Many teachers joined judges, lawyers, family and friends in the packed courtroom. Lewis told them Florida's future "passes through your hands."
The job passes to the most senior justice who has not yet served as chief justice and includes overseeing Florida's entire court system. Besides Pariente, two other former chief justices are on the bench, Charles T. Wells and Harry Lee Anstead.
Pariente's top priority was to complete the unification of family courts to make them less adversarial and more efficient.
Besides civic education, Lewis announced some other goals, including sensitivity and diversity training for court personnel statewide and the establishment of a task force on judicial evaluations.
He said an equitable evaluation process will help the public know who judges are, keep incompetent jurists off the bench and protect those do a good job from unfair criticism.
"We cannot let our judges ... be attacked for baseless reasons, nor can we permit the politicization of the judicial branch," Lewis said.
He promised to work toward making court facilities accessible to the disabled.
"What many of these people have faced is no different than an armed guard standing at the courthouse door barring entry," Lewis said.
One of Lewis' adult daughters sat in a wheelchair and joined his wife to hold a Bible while he took his oath. Lewis said his other daughter was unable to attend because she had just undergone surgery.
Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Lewis on Dec. 7, 1998, only five days before Chiles died in office. Lewis then was a Miami lawyer in private practice specializing in civil trial and appellate litigation.
He was a star basketball player and graduated with honors from Florida Southern College and then earned a law degree from the University of Miami. He was an Army lawyer before going into private practice.
Former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, also a Miami graduate, gave Lewis a football with the Hurricanes' logo on it.
Retired Chief Justice Leander Shaw had a more practical gift: a pair of hearing aides that can be set to block sound. Shaw, who administered the oath, said they would come in handy when people line up to tell him how to run the judicial system.
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