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Martin Dyckman: England helped save scandal-ridden Fla. Supreme Court

 With a new law practice to nourish, four daughters to educate, and major medical bills to pay, the last thing that Arthur J. England Jr. needed in 1974 was to run for the Florida Supreme Court.

But the court needed him.

With three justices under investigation for tawdry ethics and the court’s reputation in ruins, an impending retirement called for a candidate committed to reform.

It looked, however, as if a fix was in for one who would fit right into the old regime.

Gov. Reubin Askew thought the vacancy was his to fill by appointment. So did the attorney general and the secretary of state, who refused to put the seat on the ballot.

Sam Spector, a judge of the First District Court of Appeal, wanted to run. When his candidacy papers were rejected, he filed suit in the Supreme Court — where, it was widely understood, his candidacy was welcome.

Should the court decide in Spector’s favor after the filing deadline had passed, the seat would be his by default.

So England filed also and intervened in the lawsuit.

The governor should appoint, he told the court. But if the court thought otherwise — as, predictably, it did — England would contest Spector for the seat.

As it was recalled during his memorial service at the court last week, England’s was an improbable candidacy.

He had to “reinvent himself,” as his friend Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte said, and it took courage for him to run.

He had never been a judge and had never run for any office. With a specialty in federal tax law, he had not practiced in state courts. Having earned his law degree elsewhere, he had no network of old Florida friends to float his candidacy. It would be run out of his garage, staffed largely by his family, and dependent for life support on attorneys and newspaper editors who knew what was at stake.

Nobody knew that better than England himself.

During three previous years as an adviser to the House of Representatives and the governor, England had drafted Florida’s corporate income tax. Now, he and Attorney General Robert Shevin were representing Askew against electric and telephone companies wanting to pass on their entire tax burden to the consuming public.

Behind their backs, a lawyer for two of the utilities was lobbying the court to influence how the decision would be written. He gave a proposed draft to two justices after discussing the case during a golf game with one of them.

That draft would have become the court’s opinion but for two law clerks who blew the whistle inside the court — where the mutual improprieties were then covered up.

This scandal, one of several festering simultaneously at the court, had exploded in the press when the question of the vacancy came up.

During the campaign, Askew remarked to me that he considered England’s candidacy as important as his own re-election.

“Few people have had the impact for good as he had when he came to Tallahassee,” Askew remarked at the memorial service for England, who had died Aug. 1 at the age of 80.

After creating the corporate tax, England became Askew’s consumer adviser and drafted the so-called Little FTC Act, Florida’s first effective consumer protection law. That offended some lobbies and Cabinet members who sent England back to private life by persuading the 1973 Legislature to abolish his salary.

Returning to Tallahassee as a justice, he pioneered the nation’s first program to use the interest banks pay on lawyer trust accounts to finance legal services for the poor. During his two years as chief justice, he opened Florida’s courtrooms to camera coverage, setting another national example.

But his most important contribution to the court was simply to be there. He and three justices whom Askew did appoint reformed the court, curing it of the cronyism that had spawned the scandals. In 1980, he led the way for a constitutional amendment that restricted the court’s oft-abused discretionary jurisdiction, restoring the eroded authority of Florida’s district courts of appeal.

His mission accomplished in merely six years, England left the court in 1981 to begin a flourishing new career as an appellate specialist.

The legacy he left at the court is in great danger now because recent legislatures and governors have injected highly partisan politics into the process for nominating and appointing judges. There will be no issue more important in the 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

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