R. Fred Lewis, Florida's new chief justice, is a native of West Virginia. He grew up in Raleigh County. He's shown here with his fellow Florida Supreme Court justices.
TALLAHASSEE - West Virginia native R. Fred Lewis began his two-year term as Florida's chief justice with an open invitation to "come share with us your vision of justice."
Family and friends who watched Lewis take the oath as chief justice June 30 saw that invitation written large on the wall between the front entrance doors to the courtroom.
Lewis, 58, shared some of his vision of justice during the ceremonial "passing of the gavel" session. He announced that the cornerstone of his tenure as chief justice will be an initiative called "justice teaching" and pledged to work with The Florida Bar and Florida's other courts to connect with every school in the state for civics education.
"We're going to form the most comprehensive approach to support civics education that's ever been attempted and we're going to make that a reality,'' he said.
Lewis credits his teachers in Beckley, W.Va., for guiding him as he was growing up. As a justice, he has visited three or four schools every month and has spearheaded the Court's partnership with the Florida Law Related Education Association in sponsoring the annual "Justice Teaching Institute," an intensive week-long seminar in legal issues for 25 teachers from around the state.
"It's a very exciting time and a wonderful opportunity to follow in the footsteps of my predecessors," Lewis said in a recent interview. "I hope to have a positive impact on the state."
Lewis also pledged to continue the judicial branch's emergency preparations to keep the courts open and operating in the aftermath of a disaster, be it a hurricane or a pandemic or any other crisis.
He announced he would sign an order establishing a committee to study how to improve the management of complex cases and establish standard jury instructions for business and contract disputes. Other priorities: Continued integration of technology with judicial management and advancement toward electronic filing, a survey of barriers confronting people with disabilities seeking assess to the courts and study of what the courts can do to address the issues of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system.
Lewis said he would establish a task force to consider judicial evaluation in an effort to cope with critical attacks that are baseless as well as to ensure that judges meet expected standards of competence and ethics. Noting that the Legislature has approved a record number of new trial judges in the last two years, Lewis said education of judges will also be re-examined.
Lewis joined the Florida Supreme Court in January 1999, a month after being appointed by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Before his appointment, Lewis practiced law in Miami, specializing in civil trial and appellate litigation. He was also very actively involved in issues facing children and the physically challenged, providing counseling to families with children who have impairments and free legal services to cancer patients seeking proper treatment for multiple conditions.
In the early 1990s, Lewis took on the pro bono case of Denise Montes, who would have died if she did not receive a medical treatment within 60 days that her insurance company had refused to reimburse. Despite damage to his home and office by Hurricane Andrew during this period, Lewis worked out of another attorney's office and quickly persuaded the federal court to rule in favor of Montes, saving her life.
A star athlete in his youth, Lewis won a scholarship to Florida Southern College in Lakeland. There he distinguished himself in studies, athletics, and leadership. Lewis went on to graduate from the University of Miami School of Law with honors. He entered private practice in Miami after a stint in the U.S. Army.
Lewis and his wife Judith met at Florida Southern College and have two children, Elle and Lindsay.
"Athletics brought me to Florida, but I always came back to Beckley," he said. "Mother died when I was very young. ... I thought I would come back to Beckley after college. But then I decided on trying law school. And one good thing led to another ...
"I do get back as much as I can. Father lives with me. He's 96. Came back more when he was there. But he finally sold his property there a few years ago. We get back once in a while, but not as frequently as I'd like to.
Lewis still keeps a jar of raw coal on his desk to remind him of his beginnings, along with New River Coal Company scrip and his grandfather's carbide light.
"All of my ancestors come out of a coal mining camp called Cranberry along the New River. They sealed the mine off several years ago, but the old company store is still there. It's between Beckley and Mount Hope. I grew up in that area, went to public schools there."
Despite his professional success in Florida, Lewis is quick to credit West Virginia.
"The thing I hold most dear is the moral values, the life values that were given to me by living there." he said. "Those were validated. Not only validated, but reinforced. The value system of the Mountaineer is something special.
"I run into so many folks from West Virginia. I don't know of a single Mountaineer who isn't a Mountaineer for life and proud to be so. As soon as they hear you're from West Virginia, there's a common bond.
"There's something about being from there that is special. It's a very dear approach to life."