Oral History Interview with Former Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court Charles T. Wells

Oral History Interview with Former Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court Charles T. Wells

Created: October 13, 2016

I'm Charles Talley Wells and I go by Charley with an "ey" and I was born on March the 4th, 1939 in what was then known as the Orange Memorial Hospital in Orlando. At the time my parents were living at 11 East Miller Street which is now part of the Orlando Regional Hospital property. But I was born there at what was then called the Orange Memorial Hospital. So I then lived there with my parents and my brother Joel who was, my brother Joel was ten years older than I was. My dad was an attorney here in Orlando at the time.

Orlando Attorney Charles T. Wells

LISTEN  Part I (20:54)                                                                                                (Text highlights from audio recording.)

In October of 1943, my family moved and I moved to Gatlin Avenue in south Orlando. And it was on Gatlin Avenue on Lake Jennie Jewell where I grew up. And so we lived out there in an area which was a two lane street that came from what was then known as Kuhl Avenue and came down to what is now Summerlin and was a paved road. And further east on Gatlin Avenue was a dirt road. And where they now have a laboratory, it was by the Navy at that time  when I was growing up that was the woods there wasn't any development there.

Fort Gatlin

But the landmark there, was that they had put in a slab on the ground where the Gatlin Avenue stopped being paved and became dirt road that recognized Fort Gatlin. And Fort Gatlin used to be there and that was dating back to when the Seminoles, as I understand it at least, we were having several wars, the American settlers were with the Seminole Indians. And that was the historic event of Gatlin Avenue or Fort Gatlin.

  VIEW

A Florida Heritage Site Marker for the Site of Fort Gatlin

Lake Jennie Jewell and Lake Gatlin

But that's where I grew up. And it was a sandy bottom lake. And during my childhood we spent a lot of time, my friends and I who lived along Gatlin Avenue, both in Lake Jennie Jewell and mainly over in Lake Gatlin which was right across the street from us. That was sort of an idyllic place to grow up. And if you can picture it in 1943, and that was during of course World War II, and so it was far enough out of town that you had to have public transportation because of gas rationing to get out of town. And the bus came down Kuhl Avenue. And they were running a bus from downtown Orlando out to Pine Castle Air Force Base because that was a facility that was part of the war effort. 

There were two Air Force Bases here in Orlando at the time. Orlando Air Force Base which was down in now Herndon Airport, was part of that complex. And the Pine Castle Air Force Base which is now McCoy Airport. And so we regularly rode the bus back and forth to town because that was a major means of transportation during gas rationing during the war.

But there was literally very little along what is now Summerlin Avenue between Gatlin Avenue and Michigan Avenue which was sort of north of the south border of the downtown area of Orlando, there was almost completely orange groves. Where the development of Southern Oaks is, all was woods. But on the side of the lakes, all was orange grove. And so, that was the area which I remember vividly from my growing up in south Orlando.

Waterskiing with the Orr Family

When you say, watersports, what kind of watersports?  Did you ski, fish? Did someone have a boat? We did. We did waterski. On the corner, or right  where  that plaque of Fort Gatlin, was a large home that had been built immediately before World War II by Dr. Louis Orr. [Is that the one with the "S" on it?] That's right.

  VIEW

And Dr. Orr who was a urologist and had a practice after the war, he had been in WWII and had built this house before WWII began, came back and was later in the mid fifties the president of the American Medical Association from here in Orlando. And his son Donny, actually his name was Louis, but we called him Donny, and they had a daughter named Doris that was a year younger than I was, well, they had a ski boat and taught us all to ski.

In fact, Dr. Orr was so enthusiastic  about it he built a ski jump. And Donny Orr became one of the skiers down at Cypress Gardens because he was so skilled at it. And his daughter Doris later married Richard Swann who is a lawyer here in Orlando and has been for many years. And so we waterskiied, we swam, we fished. We did the things that you do when you are fortunate enough to live on a sandy bottom lake. Because the lakes were a lot clearer and cleaner back before all the development occurred.

The Hurricane of 1944

Now we also had water pumped directly out of the lake for all uses except for drinking. And in the 1940's we got bottled water for drinking, but we pumped the water directly out of the lake which was powered by an electric pump. And in 1944 we had a hurricane which was a severe hurricane. We had been out there for about a year in south Orlando and it knocked the power out for about a month. Well, I was only about five years old and I remember that as the first traumatic event from a storm that I had lived through. And that was back during the war so it had all the inconveniences of rationing.   

Rural Area

But it was such a rural area that during the war my mother raised chickens. And we had a chicken coop right out by the house and used chickens to lay eggs. And my brother Joel would sell the eggs around the neighborhood and my mother would wring the chickens necks and we'd have fried chicken. And so that was, it was that type of area, that that part of Orange County was when I was first growing up.  

    VIEW

Joel Wells, top photo, Orlando High School Tigando Staff, 1947

Pine Castle  

Now I began school in 1946, actually I guess it was 1945 when I had become six years old at Pine Castle Elementary School. Now Pine Castle was just a very small village that had grown up primarily because of the Air Force Base. And it was on the south side of Lake Conway, one of the Conway lakes. Hoffner Avenue which ran east and west had some development on it over to Daetwyler, where the Daetwyler Farm, actually it was a farm at that point because they kept cows at Daetwyler, but it also was a nursery which it later became. But I went to Pine Castle which was mainly a rural school.

Of course, we always have to keep in mind in talking about the schools, in my school years, that they were segregated. And so, we didn't have any black students, we just had white students at Pine Castle Elementary School. It was a very rural area. Well, when I got there, one of my searing memories was, is that none of the kids wore shoes which suited me fine. But my mother very much wanted me to wear shoes. And so, she would take me to school and I would, as soon as she would deposit me at the school, I would immediately take my shoes off. Well, I lost several pair of shoes and my mother didn't like that very much and so by the second grade she decided I ought to transfer to a more cosmopolitan place.

  VIEW

Charles Wells, Mascot for Orlando High School Pan-American League, 1947

Delaney Elementary School

So she transferred me to Delaney and so I then began the rest of my elementary school years at Delaney, which of course, has now been turned into a senior center, the Delaney Elementary School building down on South Delaney Street. And that's where I really  began to develop most of the lifelong  friends I've had from my school years here in Orlando. And, in fact, still many of those students who I have known since I began school there at Delaney in 1946 still are good friends.

Ken Melrose

In fact, one of those students that I went to school with made a substantial donation to the Orlando Public Library, to the Albertson Public Library, Ken Melrose. He and I were very good friends and played a lot of sports together as we grew up. Ken lived over close to Delaney Elementary School as a matter of fact. So we went to Delaney, and then went to Cherokee Junior High School. And most of the time that I was at Delaney, I would ride my bike from Gatlin Avenue down to Delaney and then come back and spend the afternoons playing various sports at Delaney Park which is there in south Orlando still. But a lot of my friends grew up in and around Delaney Park.  

  VIEW

Ken Melrose, center, from the Boone Hi Lights, May 31, 1957, Vol. 5, #16, school newspaper.

Orlando in the 1940's and 1950's

Now what we have to understand about Orlando in the late forties and early fifties was that it was still a small town. And very much driven by the citrus industry which was the major industry in Orlando. The days I didn't ride my bicycle to school, my mother, we had one automobile, and my mother would drive me and my father, and for a couple of years my brother, who had graduated from the University of Florida, and was also graduated from law school in 1951. And we would go down and she would take me by Delaney, we'd pick up Leon Handley who was a lawyer here in Orlando who was renting an apartment across from the hospital down on what is now known as South Orange Avenue. And then she'd sort of drop me at Cherokee and they would go down to where my father's law office was at the time. He was a law partner at Maguire, Voorhis, and Wells which was a law firm that had an office then in what was the Florida State Bank Building which now is the #1 North Orange building. But their office was on the tenth floor of that bank building. And if you can picture, the picture I have in my mind of Orlando during my growing up years, was that the tallest building in town was the Florida State Bank building and it was on the corner of Orange and Central.

  VIEW

The Florida Bank on Central Boulevard facing west photographed by T. P. Robinson.

Across the street from the bank building was the San Juan Hotel and that was a large hotel for a town the size of Orlando. To the north immediately of the Florida State Bank building was the Angebilt Hotel which was a building of equal size to the Florida State Bank Building.

  VIEW

The Angebilt Hotel on Orange Avenue as photographed by T. P. Robinson.

To the south, on the southeast corner of Orange Avenue and Central, was a department store.

  VIEW

Yowell-Drew Company located at Orange Avenue and Central Boulevard as photographed by T. P. Robinson.

First we knew it as Yowell Drew's and then it became Yowell Drew Ivey's. And it was a four story building, and for a town the size of Orlando, quite a good department store. Across the street on the southwest corner was Dickson Ives which was another department store. It mainly featured women's clothes, but it was a very good department store.

There were three dime stores, what we used to call five and dimes, Woolworth's, McCrory's and I forget the others.

  VIEW

Orange Ave postcard showing First National Bank of Orlando, F. W. Woolworth Co., McCrory's, and McElroy Drugs in the foreground, circa 1950.

But there were those stores downtown and there were three movie theaters. There was Beacham movie theater which was sort of the upscale movie theater. And then there was a movie theater on Pine Street which was immediately west of Orange Avenue on Pine Street. And there was the Rialto Theater which was on Church Street. And the Rialto was a place that my friends and I spent most Saturday mornings as we were growing up because they had westerns and they had serials. And until you turned 12, you could go to the movie for 9 cents. And so it was a good place to deposit your children on Saturday mornings and so we went there.

LISTEN  Part II  (18:59)

First National Bank Building

Another historic feature of downtown that is in my memory, the First National Bank Building was at the center of Orange. It was on the northwest corner of Orange and Church Street. It was a two story building because that bank was the successor to what had been known as the Orlando Bank and Trust Company. And when that bank had failed in the Depression and the First National Bank had been reorganized in the 1930's, one of my father's partners, Harry Voorhis, had served on the board of directors at that bank and so we had some friends that worked there at the bank....

Baseball Ticker Tape

Down Church Street there was a newsstand, that my memory is that in order to stay up with how the baseball games, the major league baseball games were going; and my brother Joel was a great baseball fan, and I say he was 10 years older than I, he would take me there. And they had a ticker tape that ran the ticker tape and would tell you what was going on in every inning of the baseball games. And so, we'd go down there and watch the ticker tapes of the baseball games as they were broadcasted, or telling you through the teletype what the baseball games were doing. I have an active memory of that type of experience in Orlando.

 

Boone High School Basketball Team Captain

So I then went to Boone High School and graduated from Boone High School in 1957 where my proudest achievement was that I was the captain of the Boone High School Basketball Team. And we had a very good basketball team. We'd been to the state tournament in my junior year, but unfortunately my senior year we got beat in the finals of the district tournament and didn't get to go to the state final tournament that year. But I was very fortunate to have a great experience playing basketball which stayed with me all my life as a matter of fact. And actively played basketball until I turned 60 years old and my cardiologist told me I better stop playing full court. So I have had a wonderful experience growing up here in Orlando because as I say it was a small town and you had the advantage of knowing a lot of people who were in the various areas of Orlando that were pretty small and community minded....

 VIEW

Charley Wells, top center photo, featured in "The Outstanding Six," from Boone Hi Lights, May 31, 1957, Vol. 5, #16.

What was a typical Sunday like for you growing up?

Well, my mother and dad had moved to Orlando from Panama City out in west Florida in 1928 when my dad had studied law. He'd gone to the University of Florida but he hadn't completed his law school. But he'd studied for the bar and became a lawyer and practiced, moved from Panama City to Miami and was there for a year, and then he came back up here. And his brother who had gone to the Naval Academy had come down from Panama City and so he came back up to join him, and that's when he got with Harry Voorhis, and Raymond Maguire, Senior. 

My mother who was a school teacher and had gone to the women's college in Montgomery, Alabama, her father was a Methodist minister and had been a circuit rider in the north Florida, south Alabama conference.... He retired to Panama City and they moved him. And so when my mother moved down here, they immediately became active in the Methodist Church.

First Methodist Church

So we went to church every Sunday and to the First Methodist Church, which looking out my office building here at the Gray Robinson in downtown Orlando, I can see the First Methodist Church which is different than it was then. Because when I first started going, the church was there at what we called Main Street, is now Magnolia, and between South and Jackson Streets in downtown Orlando. 

VIEW

First Methodist Church located at Main Street and Jackson Street.

Bishop John Branscomb

And so we had a man who was the pastor at First Methodist in my first memory of it being there. Well, the first one was named Dr. Fred Turner, but then he was followed by John Branscomb and John Branscomb became one of the better known Methodists. He became a bishop in the Methodist Church, and he was a spellbinding preacher. He had also grown up in south Alabama and so he and my parents had a lot in common and we spent a lot of time with the Branscombs....

Sunday Radio Programs

We would go to church and then we would have Sunday lunch that my mother would cook and we would generally spend the rest of the day listening to the radio. My mother was a great radio fan and fortunately she would let me listen to the radio with her and all these programs. And Sunday was a great night for the radio and we would listen to the various programs, Jack Benny and Fred Allen and those great radio comedians and all their shows. So that was how we would generally spend Sundays.

The Value of a College Education

So you said that your mother's father was a Methodist minister? Correct. So is he the one who encouraged her to go to college? Because wasn't it somewhat unusual for a woman at that time to go to college? Yes, yes it was. You know it was. My mother had five siblings, one of whom died in her twenties of tuberculosis. But my grandfather was very much dedicated to the fact that all of his children were going to get an education. And so, that was one of the few material benefits of being attached to the Methodist Church is that his children got some sort of benefit from the Methodist Church to go to college.

Coca Cola Company Leadership

My mother's oldest brother whose name was Lee Talley went to Emory. And he succeeded through going to Emory and meeting the daughter of Mr. Candler, and who at the time owned the  Coca Cola Company, going to work for the Coca Cola Company and rose through the ranks of the Coca Cola Company to be the chairman of the board of the Coca Cola Company. And then, her other brother, John Talley, went to Duke on a Methodist scholarship. At that time Duke was connected to the Methodist Church and he became president of the Coca Cola export corporation later. So then through that impetus, and my mother went to a women's college and became a teacher also through a boost through the Methodist Church as did her sister. They had another sister who was deaf and so she didn't go to college. She was educated at the school for the deaf in St. Augustine. But it was very important to them to have college educations. 

Grandfather Joel Wells Served as County Judge

And on my father's side, my father's father, my grandfather, studied for the law, and then he was a county judge out in West Florida from 1900 to 1909. And then he, after he retired from being a judge, moved down to Panama City to be a lawyer. And so, he was a lawyer and so he also was interested in all of his children having college educations. So that's kind of the impetus to our family going to college.

Did you know your grandparents?

Yes. And I spent, well actually, my grandfather on my father's side had died before I was born. He was, in fact died a year after he had an accident when he went over to get my father sworn in to the bar in Tallahassee. And so, I didn't know him. But after he died, my grandmother on my father's side moved down here to Orlando. She lived in an apartment and I got to know her that way. My grandfather on my mother's side died in 1945 so I knew him when I was just a young child. He had retired from the ministry to Panama City mainly to fish. He fished six days a week and they did nothing on Sunday.

The remarkable thing about the men on my mother's side of the family was that they were very short and very small. And on my father's side they were very large men. On my mother's side they were very small and, in fact, my uncle who became the chief executive of the Coca Cola Company was only 5 ft. 2 and had very red hair on my mother's side.

But I got to know some of my grandparents by going and spending a good bit of time in Panama City as I was growing up. As long as they were living there. After my grandfather died my grandmother soon moved up to Maryland and lived with my aunt, my mother's sister. But, yes, I got to know my grandparents.

Storytellers in the Southern Tradition

So, what were they like? They're obviously very important people so were they very serious and scary? No. They were very gentle people. My mother's family were remarkable storytellers. And they could really tell. My aunt, who my grandmother went to live with, was just a storyteller in the tradition of southern storytellers. An interesting fact is that because they moved from town to town, they were in various small towns in south Alabama and my aunt and my mother could tell a story from each of those small towns about the people who were there in that town, and about the chickens they raised, and then the people at the church bringing them their Sunday dinners.

Harper Lee

Well, one of the people that my Aunt Betty got to know, and who started in the first grade with her, was Harper Lee. And so, when Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird Betty knew a lot of those same stories. And she could tell them about as well as anybody because they were very dramatic in their presentations of these things. And so that was part of my upbringing, was learning and hearing all of those stories of what was going on in these southern towns around the south and in those years.

Oratory Skills

And that's an oratory skill, right? It is. I'm not a attorney, but that's definitely something that you need to be a good attorney, right? Yes, yes, that's exactly right. As I often tell lawyers who are just out of law school, and that it becomes apparent to you after a while, that in trying a lawsuit, that what you're really trying to do is tell a story. Because you're trying to have six people who form the jury understand something that happened. And what you're doing is you're relating to them the story of the event. And that's certainly part of the skills of being a lawyer is being able to picture it in your mind, and describe it, and present it to people so that they understand in fact what happened.

LISTEN  Part III  (19:08) 

Cape Kennedy Condemnation Case

To continue with my sort of narrative here. After graduating from Boone High School I went to the University of Florida and, as I say, my brother Joel had preceded me and had gone to the University of Florida and had come back, in the time that I started at the university he was a lawyer here in Orlando. And Joel was quite a role model for me, too, in that he had one of the first cases that Joel did a lot of work on when he got here was the, together with my Uncle Maxwell and my father did some work on it, but mainly them, and Raymond Maguire, Sr., they represented the major land owners when they were condemning the property to put Cape Kennedy on. And so, that was a large, what we call, condemnation case for the federal government was coming in and taking all that land. And, in fact, they had to try that case twice because one time they didn't get the result that they thought that they should have gotten. They took an appeal, came back, and they tried it again. 

So that was part of the experience that I watched some of that case. I was beginning at the university because they had started developing Cape Kennedy earlier, but the condemnation case went on for some time after that and it was tried here in Orlando. And were the landowners compensated? They were. They were compensated and they got a very good result in that case.

My Brother Joel

Then I'll divert to Joel. Joel was active in that case and then Joel became very involved in the community. He was President of the Chamber of Commerce and did that type of thing. And at the same time he was, started representing, followed Mr. Voorhis in representing the bank, the First National Bank, which then he started doing the legal work for putting together the packages which led to branch banking in Florida.  Because you couldn't have branch banking in Florida up until the 1960's. And so at one point there was an attempt to put together a banking conglomerate that would have been the First National Bank of Orlando, the Exchange Bank of Tampa, the Bank of Miami, and the Bank of Jacksonville. And that attempt was not permitted by the Justice Department. And so, they didn't allow that banking.

CEO of SunTrust

But then Joel stayed active in trying to get branch banking approved which finally did occur. And then he moved full time into banking. And he was the chief executive officer of Sunbank at the time it merged with the Trust Company of Georgia and became SunTrust, and he moved to Atlanta and was the CEO of SunTrust for the last two years of his life. He died of cancer in 1991.

University of Florida

So Joel was back here practicing. But he, and as I say, was somebody that I became close to. And he was a big gator fan and so I became a big gator fan. And we followed the University of Florida and so it was natural for me to go to the University of Florida as he had and as had my father. So I began my career at the University of Florida in 1957. And I became very interested and active in campus politics. I tried out for the basketball team but my interest in campus politics really began to trump my interest in staying active on the basketball court and so I did that. I was a member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity. And so, graduated from the University of Florida in 1961, and then went into the service because at that time you either went in - you got a student deferment as long as you were in school- but if not, you could be subject to the draft, or you could go into the reserves and serve six months on active duty. And then serve five or six years in the reserves where you go to weekly meetings and serve a couple of weeks during the summer.

United States Military Service

So I opted to do that and went into the service after I graduated in 1961 intending to be there for six months. But, President Kennedy had other ideas because they built the Berlin Wall in the summer of 1961 and so my reserve unit got called to active duty while I was going through basic training. And we were then sent out to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. And so, rather than serve six months, I served about a year and a half in the service, but then came back and went to law school, came back to Orlando and started practicing law. 

Maguire, Voorhis, and Wells, P. A.

My interest in the law at that point was being a trial lawyer and so I was in the trial practice at Maguire, Voorhis, and Wells for beginning, I joined Maguire, Voorhis, and Wells in January of 1965. Took the bar exam and became, was admitted to the Florida Bar in June of 1965, and continued to practice at Maguire, Voorhis, and Wells until I decided that I wanted to, I'd lived in Florida all my life, that I thought I would move to Washington for a while. And so, I applied for and was accepted to, for a job at the United States Department of Justice in Washington. And in January of 1969, I moved to Washington and went to work at the Justice Department.

The United States Department of Justice

The interesting thing about the Justice Department among other things at that time was that there was no security in the building. The FBI building which now houses the FBI and is across the street from the Main Justice, was, had not been built. They were digging out the foundation as a matter of fact. They were beginning to dig out the foundation when I got to the Justice Department. My office in the Justice Department was on the third floor in the main building on the corner of 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Justice runs from 9th Street to 10th on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Department of Justice Attorney Gene Robinson

And so, I was in an office, in fact, I shared an office with an African American lawyer named Gene Robinson who became a very good friend of mine, and later was the Chief Judge of the Court of General Sessions in the District of Columbia. And he was a very interesting person who was - of course you got to picture in your mind this was in the 1960's - and Gene was a black lawyer. And they'd send him to places that it was not very safe to be a black lawyer. But Gene had the kind of personality that he could quell a storm. And so he did really great work in doing it as a representative of the Department of Justice around the country.

Washington, D.C.

But I settled in there, when I got to Washington - you got to remember how dramatic the year of 1968 had been. And that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. There had been fires that had burned in Washington. There was a lot of damage done at the intersection of 14th and U in Washington. And so, when I got there, was right before the inauguration of Richard Nixon. And there was a lot of talk about there being a lot of unrest and continuing riots in Washington. I went out on a detail one of my first weekends. I didn't know I had signed up for this kind of service. But I went with other lawyers from the Justice Department to look at various areas. 

J. Edgar Hoover

But, having said all that, one of the striking things was that there was still no security there in the Justice Department. And my office was on the third floor. The law library was on the fifth floor. And John Mitchell was the Attorney General, or had just been appointed the Attorney General soon after I got there, and his office was on the fifth floor. And J. Edgar Hoover's office was on the sixth floor. Everybody used the same elevators. Now Hoover would ride up, he would always have a body guard with him, but other than that, there was just little to no security in the building. You didn't have to go through a metal detector or anything like that. And would Mr. Hoover speak to you? He was kind of a gruff appearing guy, but he would shake his head. John Mitchell was a very friendly person. You'd often see him just walking down the hall there at Justice. Another person that then got some, become known during the Watergate Era, was the assistant head of the civil division which I was working, was Bill Ruckelshaus and his office was on the third floor right down from my office.   

Trial Attorney for the United States Department of Justice

So I had that experience and it was a very good experience because I got to try cases as a young trial lawyer in various places in the country. And so, I was there for a year and then came back to Orlando, and got married to Linda, who was at the time, had been working for the Census Bureau and going to night school at George Washington Law School. We were married at the end of the year and then decided to move back to Orlando. I was moving back. She was moving to Orlando for the first time. I'd known her just casually at the University of Florida where she had gone to undergraduate school, but then we got together in Washington and came back at the end of 1969. And I went back to work at Maguire, Voorhis and Wells. And it was my intent, which I did, that I wanted to get active in politics. So I ran for the legislature in 1970.

Lawton Chiles            

And it was in that run for the legislature which was unsuccessful because I was running as a Democrat and the Republicans were taking over all the legislative delegations in Central Florida at the time. But I got to know during that campaign, Lawton Chiles and Reuben Askew who then became friends of mine over the rest of their lives. And it was really a fortuitous thing for me to get to know [Chiles], who then became Governor Chiles. He was at the time that I got to know him in the midst of his walk across Florida which gave rise to him becoming known as "Walkin' Lawton." Because it was his way to attract attention that he began a walk out in west Florida.

Walkin' Lawton by [Coggin, John Dos Passos]

Book cover for Walkin' Lawton by John Dos Passos Coggin. 

And I'll never forget seeing him. I'd actually had met him casually before, before he started walking across Florida. But he was here and it was about the first of July and it was hot. It was really hot. And he, the next day was going to walk down 441 to Kissimmee. And I told him, "You're just crazy as a loon to get out there in that heat and walk." But he did it. And it was something that he became known for. He started off as very much of a long shot in running for the United States Senate and he won the campaign. And so, that was my real introduction to Lawton Chiles.

Wells, Gattis, and Hallowes, P. A.

So I then continued, since I was unsuccessful in running for the legislature, I went back full time into the practice of law and decided in 1975 that together with two other trial lawyers at, who were then with, Maguire, Voorhis and Wells to move to a law practice of our own. So we found the firm of Wells, Gattis, and Hallowes in January of 1976 and I continued in that practice until I was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court in June of 1994. And so, that's where I spent the majority of my law practice was as a trial lawyer there.

LISTEN  Part IV  (20:24)  

The Florida Supreme Court

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 'til 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.

  VIEW   

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.

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.

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Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court Charles T. Wells

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. 

  VIEW

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.

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.

LISTEN  Part V  (8:17)

We happen to be in an election year, presidential election, and I wondered if you wouldn't mind reading a page from your book?

Excerpt from Inside Bush v. Gore, page 133, read by the author, Charley Wells:

As I observed earlier, this was a story about the transfer of power in the world's most powerful nation. I believe the transfers of power in various parts of the world since 2000 have proven over and over again the benefit and wisdom of our country's citizens' support for and allegiance to the rule of law enforced by an independent court system. Unlike what we have witnessed in the Middle East and in parts of Africa, there was never in the year 2000 any real threat that the disputes surrounding the presidential election would be settled in the streets rather than in the courts.

There was general acceptance throughout the thirty-six days that once the final decision had been made by the final court, power would transfer peacefully. I have often remarked that a striking fact of which we as Americans can and should be proud, and for which we must be grateful, is that the blocks of trucks parked for those thirty-six days across from our court had television transmitters on their roofs, not machine guns. Security in our court, and in front of our court, was never a real issue.

In the more than two-hundred-year history of our country, our citizens have developed an expectation that when a dispute arises that cannot be otherwise worked out, it is the role of the courts to make a decision to end the dispute, and that the decision will be honored and respected. This expectation has grown out of faith on the part of our citizens that courts will provide due process in the presentation and consideration of the dispute, and that the courts will reach a "final" decision with competence, diligence, and without delay. Regardless of the final result of Bush v. Gore, or the result of interim decisions during the thirty-six days, I believe that the record demonstrates that both the federal and Florida courts provided due process within the time constraints that had long before the 2000 election been placed by Congress on the resolution of disputes in presidential elections. I also believe that the record demonstrates that the courts reached their decisions with competence, diligence, and without delay. 

As an everyday person looking from the outside it seems to me that you value and you believe in the legal system of our country.

I certainly do. I believe that with - it certainly has faults, but it is a human institution which has served to provide some degree of objectivity in reaching decisions that allow people to settle disputes and then return to lives that have not been totally obliterated by the violence or the struggle. And so, that's what courts are about. And as I have often said, what has become apparent to me is that there is really no governmental function that is as meaningful in people's everyday lives than what a judge at the local courthouse does in working through things for people that they need some help in getting through, and that has to do with really from the cradle to the grave. In domestic relations, in business relations, in adoptions, in driving your automobile, there's not a way that you get away from having to have some order and some rules. And those have to be from time to time determined as to how they apply, and that's the job of the judicial branch of the government, right here in Orlando. Right, as they say, right here in River City. And so, that's my feeling about it.

Well, it certainly is inspiring to speak with you. It's inspiring to look at your legacy. The very concrete legacy of all the contributions you've made. I mean, yes, certainly as the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, but then also your many years, I read that you served representing abused and dependent children for not just a year, it was for many years. And dealing with situations like the death penalty and other very sensitive situations. But, you're known, from what your colleagues have said - I have the articles - you're known for your easy going style, but that get's right to the point. And I understand that during the election presentations you didn't want to waste any time with some of the attorneys when you felt that the nation was waiting. So it's interesting to be able to speak with you and hear about your growing up because if I follow correctly, you went to public school?

I did.

And your mother, her background was as a public school teacher?

Right.

So it shows that people can reach to the top. I mean, that's what were told, right? We're taught that you can reach to the top in American society and make a contribution. And you've shown that you can.

Well, I have been very blessed. And I really feel that my life has been charmed by growing up and living and experiencing things right here in Orlando, in Central Florida. So I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it.

Interview: Charles Talley Wells
 
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
 
Date: October 13, 2016

Place: GrayRobinson Law Firm in downtown Orlando.
 

 

Author:
jtracy
Name:
Charles Wells
Birthplace:
Orlando

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