Justice R. Fred Lewis. (Photo: Catharine Skipp/Miami Law)
When you come out of the coal camps of West Virginia, the last thing you expect is to go to law school, let alone become a justice of the Florida Supreme Court. And yet that's what happened to R. Fred Lewis, somewhat to his own astonishment.
"You have a great fear of failure," Justice Lewis, referring to his humble background, told an audience last month at Miami Law, from which he graduated third in his class in 1972. He returns every so often, as he did in September to preside over the Florida Bar swearing ceremony for the school's May graduates. This time, Justice Lewis was here to receive the 11th annual William M. Hoeveler Award from Miami Law's Center for Ethics and Public Service, which honors exemplary ethics, leadership and public service in the legal profession.
"Everything that I have accomplished, and everything that I may accomplish in the future, I can trace back to this institution," Justice Lewis said, looking around the Faculty Meeting Room. "I don't know what I expected from law school, but it was beyond my greatest expectation." He added, "This is my family now," and said he always tried to find spots for Miami Law graduates as staff attorneys or interns at the Florida Supreme Court.
Dipping again into his memories, he recalled that, as a high-school-athlete in Raleigh County, W. Va., he was offered a spot at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. "For someone from a coal camp," he said, "being invited to go to Florida was like being invited to go to heaven."
Describing his tenure on the Florida Supreme Court, to which he was appointed in 1998, Justice Lewis said he had "really liked being a lawyer" and never particularly wanted to be a judge. "It's been fun at times," he said, "and it's been awful at times." He gave as examples the life-support case of Terri Schiavo and the disputed election of 2000, which led to Bush v. Gore being resolved by the highest court in the land. "I couldn't disagree more with the Supreme Court in that case," Justice Lewis said as he answered questions from Jan L. Jacobowitz, Director of the Professional Responsibility and Ethics Program at Miami.
Sitting near him as he spoke was the man for whom the award was named, William M. Hoeveler, a senior U.S. District Court judge who offered a short prayer at the start of the proceedings. Previous recipients of the Hoeveler award include Judge Rosemary Barkett, Janet Reno, Judge Peter Fay, Judge Mario Goderich, Judge Donald Graham, Judge Joseph Hatchett and State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle.
Earlier, Judge Hoeveler was introduced by Kamal H. Sleiman, 3L, the Articles and Comments Editor of the University of Miami Law Review, who said Judge Hoeveler was known for his "uncompromising sense of fairness." Sleiman said that even the former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, whose drug smuggling trial Judge Hoeveler oversaw, recognized the judge's unwavering professionalism, telling him that "the one shining light through this legal nightmare has been your honor."