Former and current members of the Florida Supreme Court gathered together this week to remember Leander Shaw, the high court’s first black chief justice.
Current Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga is the first Hispanic to lead the state’s high court. He recently was chosen to serve a second term, which is rare.
Labarga opened Wednesday’s ceremonial session by talking about Florida’s first black Chief Justice, and how hard it was for a prospective black lawyer to take the Bar exam at the former DuPont Plaza hotel in Miami during times of segregation.
“His mere presence caused a commotion,” he said. “People stared and examination proctors immediately spoke to hotel management. Their ultimate solution was that Justice Shaw could not take the Bar examination with the white bar applicants. So, they moved him off to a separate room. To add insult to injury, Justice Shaw was not permitted to eat at the hotel’s restaurant nor could he stay in the hotel’s rooms overnight. He had to sleep elsewhere.”
But, Labarga says it was Justice Shaw who had the last laugh.
“The great irony of here of course is that only 30 years later, Leander Shaw would ascend to the seat of Florida’s Chief Justice, the head of the entire state judicial branch and the agency that administers the Bar examination,” he added.
Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major B. Harding called Shaw, not just a colleague, but a close friend, with an infectious smile and had a great sense of humor. Harding says Shaw is also remembered by colleagues for his doodling.
“Lee was a persistent doodler. When I sat next to Lee either on conference or on the bench, I got to see some of doodles first hand, and even though, there may have been some questions as to whether they constituted art, some of them were framed. But, I will always remember that the conversation about whether they should be hung in the rotunda of the court died quickly,” he said, to laughter.
Former Justice Joe Hatchett knew Shaw, when they were just two of 25 black lawyers in all of Florida. He called him a civil rights pioneer, even before the movement. Hatchett says Shaw also quickly became a trusted friend, who carried himself well as a justice.
“Chief Justice Shaw had all the qualities of a great justice,” he said. “He had temperament to listen and consider what was argued on all sides. He had intelligence to quickly proceed, comprehend, analyze and understand complex facts situation and circumstances. He had courage, the willingness to do what the law required, even when it was not par for the course. And, he had integrity.”
And, current Justice Barbara Pariente says she agrees. She served on the high court with Shaw during his last five years and her first five. Pariente says even when Shaw knew he’d be challenged for his judicial opinion, he still did what he thought was right.
“This 1990 attack came as a result of an opinion he authored involving basic rights and liberties of women, and he knew that opinion was going to be controversial,” she said. “But, not only did he write it, but he signed his name to it. And, sure enough he received a merit retention challenge. And, that really exemplifies his understanding of the role of the judiciary, but his courage.”
The ceremonial session—which lasted about an hour—included several other tributes to Shaw from readings of his opinions to the recital of a poem written by his mother, initially read at Shaw’s retirement ceremony in 2002.
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