Chief Justice Charles T. Wells on The Florida Supreme Court
Chief Justice Charles T. Wells on The Florida Supreme Court
Chief Justice Charles T. Wells on The Florida Supreme Courtby:
November 3, 2016
The Florida Supreme Court Justices pictured from left to right are, Justices R. Fred Lewis, Harry Lee Anstead, Leander J. Shaw, Jr., Chief Justice Charles T. Wells, Major B. Harding, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince.
Listen as former Florida Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court Charles T. Wells describes serving on the court in this excerpt from an oral history interview with the Orlando native at his GrayRobinson law office in downtown Orlando, October 13, 2016.
I was at the court at a very fortunate time from the standpoint of having cases that were of real import and interest. And it was a fascinating experience. And I was very gratified that I had those almost 15 years of experience at the court. And it is a very different experience than just about anything you can do because of the fact that you are, it's a collegial court and there's seven members on it. And there's all these different things that are going on with each of the seven members, but it's an experience in which all seven members are involved in the decision on each case. And so, you work together with those people and sometimes you agree, sometimes you don't. But it's something that you have an opportunity to totally immerse yourself in the law and I found that to be a very fascinating way to spend those 15 years.
Did you learn a lot?
I learned a great deal. I really learned. I learned things that you would hope you would learn somewhere along the way in the practice of law, but until you get a full immersion. It's like learning a foreign language that you really do it best if you are thrown in to a point in which you have to do it. And one of those things that you have to do is you really have to learn to write. And writing is a learned skill and so you have to learn to do it where you can make yourself, hopefully make yourself understood in clear and concise language so that you get your points out. And that's what you do. You are fortunate to be in the same raft as they say with people who are very bright, capable and I had the good fortune of having young lawyers come to work for me over that 15 year period where we had the opportunity to have three clerks, law clerks working directly with us that were very skilled and helped me learn. And so it was really a very wonderful experience.
Did you want to comment on any of the cases?
Well, I'll say a couple of things about the cases that are at least in my view are important to understand is one, about capital cases, that a good percentage of time of members of the Florida Supreme Court, at least during the 15 years I was there, a substantial percentage, 60-70 % of the time is spent on reviewing capital cases. I came away with the belief that one of the great criticisms that is justified of our system of justice in capital cases is the fact that we have developed a system that does not end. That it's frustrating for everybody that's part of it because it continues to go over and around and around and you have people still on death row in Florida that have been there since the 1970's.
Life on Death Row in Florida
If you're going to have - which is a decision that's made by the Legislature- a death penalty, and up until recently there has not been a serious constitutional question since the 70's as to whether it met the requirements of the United States Constitution. Now I think that there is going to develop a serious question, and it perhaps will be ruled unconstitutional. But as long as you have a decision that's made by the legislative branch of the government that you're going to have capital punishment, you need to have a system that doesn't turn itself into being cruel simply by reason of the fact that you're housing people who are convicted of committing these crimes for an interminable period of time in a state of captivity which is cruel. And that's what life on death row in Florida is. And so I, it was a very striking thing to me and it is to this day that with all the focus on whether a person should or should not be executed and the DNA, and finding out that a lot of people on death row are not there properly. That's important. I do not minimize at all the importance of that. But, it is also necessary not to have people locked in a state of suspended animation for 30 years because that becomes not only cruel, but barbaric. And our prison system in Florida is just really, very, something that we have simply got to do better with. The facilities are bad and so that was one of the things.
Cocaine Epidemic of the 90's
I was at the court at a point in time in which we were dealing with a real cocaine epidemic in the 90's. And one of the things that you learn from reviewing cases, the transcript of the cases at the time, was just what a violent producing drug cocaine is. And so, that, all of the violence that you saw in all those cases, is just something that leaves a lasting impression on you.
Full Agenda of Legal Issues From the Legislature to the Florida Supreme Court
We were in a position at the court while I was there that the Republicans had an agenda. They took over the Florida Legislature, passed a lot of bills that were a part of the political agenda that they had, but that would be immediately tested by somebody filing a lawsuit and that would eventually get to us. And so we had questions of funding of schools, we had questions about abortion and parental rights as well as all of the various questions that come up with the death penalty and searches and seizures. And so it was really the full agenda of legal issues that the public is aware of that would come flowing almost directly from the Legislature to the Florida Supreme Court.
2000 Presidential Election
And then we had the cases that were involved in the 2000 election. And that was something that happened during my watch as the Chief Justice... which I have written a book called: Inside Bush v. Gore. And it was just a time when we were right in the headlines on a daily basis for the 36 days that it went on. And it was an experience which you are living inside the incubator, and that's how you feel, that you're trying to produce something. And to bring some order out of the chaos that's developed around you. And no matter how insulated you are from things in the fashion that people can't get to you and you're in a secure environment, you know what's going on outside and how much it's all developing. And so, that was part of that 36 days experience.
9/11 and Anthrax
We had the following of that with the scares of 2000, coming out of 9/11 where there were so many security concerns with people, and the Anthrax scare immediately followed that. I being the Chief Justice had to deal with whether courts should be closed down. We never closed any courts. But there was always something that was of concern. One it was a concern right after 9/11 that our court was right across the street from Jeb Bush's office. Everybody was concerned about the security there. And you also had the white powder being discovered on floors of numerous places around the state. And so we had a lot of scares for a period of about six months during the Anthrax business.
You created the first emergency plan for the Florida Court System?
Right. It was stemming out of the combination of 9/11 and the Anthrax scare that followed that.
Serving as Florida Supreme Court Justice
So it was, as I say, a fascinating experience and I feel privileged to have been a part of it....
Orlando trial attorney Charley Wells began serving as Justice of the Florida Supreme Court on June 16, 1994. He served as Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court from July 1, 2000 through June 30, 2002.
He was the Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice during the 36 days when the Florida Supreme Court received the challenge of deciding election ballots for the Bush v. Gore presidential election.
Justice Wells continued serving as a justice on the Florida Supreme Court until March 2009.
Attorney and author Charley Wells now works in private practice at GrayRobinson law firm in downtown Orlando.
Photo courtesy of the Charles T. Wells Archives.