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Florida’s first Black chief justice dies

Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Leander J. Shaw (COURTESY OF FLORIDA SUPREME COURT)

Leander J. Shaw Jr. dies at 85

When Leander J. Shaw Jr. took the Florida Bar exam in 1960, he and a Howard University Law schoolmate, future Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph Hatchett, were not allowed to stay or eat at the Whites-only DuPont Plaza in Miami where the exam was administered.

Three decades later, Shaw became the first Black chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court – following Hatchett, who was Florida’s first Black Supreme Court justice.

Shaw, whose career included working as a public defender, prosecutor, and appeals-court judge before serving on the Supreme Court, died at the Tallahassee home of his daughter, Sherri Shaw Luke, Monday following complications from a stroke. He was 85.

Important ‘first’
“Justice Shaw served Florida with dedication and distinction, first as a lawyer and then as a member of Florida’s highest court for two decades,” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said in the statement. “As Florida’s first African-American chief justice, his service also marked an important step forward for diversity in our state.”

Then-Gov. Bob Graham appointed Shaw to the Supreme Court in 1983, after a four-year stint on the 1st District Court of Appeal. Shaw remained until his retirement in January 2003.

Hatchett, who later served as a judge on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals – one step below the U.S. Supreme Court – told the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper that he met Shaw at Howard University. They became close friends and continued that friendship when they both practiced in Florida.

‘Very deliberate’
Hatchett, now a partner in the Tallahassee office of the Akerman law firm, said he and Shaw studied together for two weeks before taking the bar exam.

“We had a friendship of over 50 years and he will be sorely missed,” Hatchett said. “He made great contributions to the state of Florida. He was very deliberate; he didn’t rush to conclusions. He served the people well.”

Dr. Walter Smith, former president of Florida A&M University, was chairman of the Florida Supreme Court Nominating Committee when Shaw was selected as a justice.

Smith said he was the only Black on that nominating committee and he didn’t know Shaw at the time. They became friends later.

“He served the state of Florida well. As a matter of fact, I think he served the nation well because of how he presided over the court,” Smith said, adding that “if something was presented to him that he needed to step aside and speak to it, he wasn’t afraid to do it.’’

Smith also told the Florida Courier, “He was a gentleman. He was respectful, and I don’t know of anybody who didn’t have a great deal of respect for Leander Shaw. Really, I don’t. When you really give thought to the kind of person, he was, he was smooth-tempered.

“He really knew how to work with people and he did it very well and that’s one of the things that made him very successful.”

Perhaps Shaw’s most controversial decision was a 1989 opinion that he wrote striking down a law requiring minors to get permission from their parents before having abortions. That decision, based on a right to privacy in the Florida Constitution, led to an unsuccessful effort to unseat Shaw when he came up for merit retention in 1990.

“I see in this victory the determination of a people not to let the law – under which we all must live and raise our children – be shackled to the politics of some special-interest group,’’ the ABA Journal quoted Shaw as saying after the merit-retention vote. “I hope judges and justices will continue to render decisions according to their conscience and their best understanding of the law, not on their reading of the latest opinion polls.”

In his later years on the court, Shaw became an outspoken critic of Florida’s use of the electric chair in executions. During a 1999 hearing, for example, Shaw likened the electric chair to the guillotine. The state ultimately stopped using electrocution and shifted to lethal injection.

Virginia native
Shaw was born Sept. 6, 1930, in Salem, Va. to Leander J. Shaw, formerly a dean of the Florida A&M University Graduate School, and Margaret Shaw, a teacher. After serving in the Korean War, Shaw earned his law degree in 1957 from Howard.

Shaw moved to Tallahassee in 1957 as an assistant professor of law at Florida A&M and was admitted to The Florida Bar in 1960. At the time, he was one of only about 25 Black attorneys practicing in the state, according to the Supreme Court statement Monday.

Moved to Jacksonville
He worked in private practice in Jacksonville and served as a public defender and prosecutor before getting appointed in 1974 by then-Gov. Reubin Askew to the Florida Industrial Relations Commission. Graham named Shaw to the 1st District Court of Appeal in 1979. Shaw served as the Supreme Court’s chief justice from 1990 to 1992.

Labarga noted in the statement Monday that Shaw joined the Supreme Court after it had been rocked by scandals in the 1970s.

In the wake of the scandal, Florida voters eliminated contested judicial elections at all of the state’s appeals courts. A new system was created by which the governor, guided by a nominating commission, vetted candidates and filled vacancies on the state’s high court.

Shaw was the first African-American chosen under this new system.

Restored public faith
“Leander Shaw was one of a handful of judges who helped restore the public’s faith in the Supreme Court and who transformed it into one of the most respected courts in the nation,’’ Labarga said.

“This was no small feat after the scandals of the 1970s.”

Four children survive Shaw: daughters Sherrie Shaw Luke, Tallahassee, and Dione King and Dawn Sims, Jacksonville; and a son, Sean Shaw, of Tampa. Another son, Leander Jerry Shaw III, is deceased.

Shaw’s body will lie in state from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday in the rotunda of the Supreme Court Building in Tallahassee.

A homegoing service is set for Tuesday in Tallahassee at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church at noon. The date and time of a separate memorial service to be held in Jacksonville is pending.

Shaw will be buried at a later date in Arlington National Cemetery.

Tillman Funeral Home of Tallahassee is handling arrangements.

Material from the Tallahassee Democrat and by Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida was used for this report.

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