Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Wells

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Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Wells

Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Wells

by:
jtracy
November 3, 2016

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles T. Wells outlines his transition from Orlando lawyer to serving on the Florida Supreme Court in this excerpt from an oral history interview with the Orlando native at GrayRobinson law firm in downtown Orlando, October 13, 2016.

LISTEN Part IV (20:24)

I had continued to be active though in various community activities across the time and spent a good bit of time working in activities with The Florida Bar and the Orange County Bar Association. And decided then in 1994 when a vacant seat was coming up on the Florida Supreme Court that I would apply for appointment to the court. And, of course, under the Florida Bar merit retention system for appellate judges, you don't run in a statewide election for the Florida Supreme Court rather you go through a committee process which is the judicial nominating committee and they make recommendations. At the time it was three to six lawyers to fill a vacancy on the court. There's seven members of the Florida Supreme Court. And under the Florida Constitution, one of the members of the court has to be appointed from each of the five appellate districts in Florida. We in Orlando are in the Fifth Appellate District that court's in Daytona Beach.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Parker Lee McDonald

The member of the court that had been from Orlando at the time that I had applied was Parker Lee McDonald. And he was hitting mandatory retirement at age 70 in June of 1994. And Justice McDonald had been a circuit judge here in Orlando prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1979. And so, that meant that the appointment to the court had to come from the Fifth District. And I thought that that would enhance my chances of getting an appointment since it would be just from this area. And so I did apply, and I had the great good fortune that I was recommended as one of the three people. I was one of the people together with two men members of the Fifth District Court of Appeals. Judge Emerson Thompson was one of the people that was on the list and then Judge Goshorn was the other person. But I was successful in getting the appointment so I became a member of the court in June of 1994.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Talley Wells

It was a substantial transition of course, because I had never been a judge. I'd been a trial lawyer, but I'd never been a judge. There was a tradition though that had developed at the Supreme Court that at least one of the members of the court would come directly out of private practice to the court. And so, I was fortunate to fill that role when I got to the courts in 1994.

Linda and I then, she at the time was a lawyer with a firm Carlton Fields in Orlando. They had an active practice before the Florida Supreme Court. So we felt that it was better and she felt that it was better that she just go ahead and retire from her practice when we moved to Tallahassee. So we did move to Tallahassee and she gave up her practice and became active in other things. She was on the Board of Trustees of Bethune Cookman College and also active in the University of Florida Foundation. But we kept our house in Windermere which we had moved to in 1974. But bought a house in Tallahassee and then we lived in Tallahassee pretty much full time until January of 2010 when I hit mandatory retirement or constitutional senility as they say, in March of 2009.

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....

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.

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