Two months ago in this column, I wrote about the death of Gregory Peck. I wrote that we should hope that the spirit of Atticus Finch, the Southern lawyer played by Peck in “To Kill A Mockingbird”, lives on. It does. That spirit was alive and well in giants in our community who recently have passed, and in giants who are alive and well. Two of the giants who recently passed were Judge Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. and Chesterfield Smith.
The Honorable Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. (1938 – 2003) was described in The Miami Herald as: “A soft-spoken champion of society’s underdogs, Ferguson rarely blew his own horn about a lifetime of achievements. He was the first Black jurist appointed to the Miami-Dade Circuit Court and Third District Court of Appeal, and the second Black Federal judge in the Southern District of Florida…. Ferguson was credited with improving the lives for thousands of disabled Floridians. In 1996, he ordered the state not to cut disabled services by about 40 percent. In a hearing on that case, Ferguson called the father of one of the wheelchair-using plaintiffs, Brett Cramer, to the bench. Ferguson told the man he was welcome to use his chambers to care for his son, who suffered from severe cerebral palsy.” The article quotes Jim McGuire, director of the Ann Storck Center in Ft. Lauderdale: “He saw Brett Cramer as a human being, and as a person who deserved respect.” Ferguson gave the disabled “a place in our society that they didn’t have before,” McGuire added.
In another 1996 case, Ferguson ruled it was unconstitutional for the state to require disabled Floridians to wait years for needed care. But the precedent-setting decision went largely ignored. So three years later, Ferguson held state officials in contempt for “willfully” withholding services to about 23,000 people who had been waiting for more than seven years. He fined the state $10,000 a day for ignoring his 1996 order. A Federal appeals court eventually reversed the fines, but the substance of the ruling stood. By 2001, state officials increased funding for the disabled by about $300 million.
That man was a born leader.
Chesterfield Smith (1917 – 2003) had much in common with Atticus Finch. They were southern lawyers, they grew up in small towns, and they stood up for what was right. On the web page of Holland & Knight, the firm built by Smith, it says:
Chesterfield Smith, one of this country’s most prominent lawyers, often called “America’s Lawyer” and “the conscience of the legal profession,” died Wednesday, July 16, 2003 at the age of 85. He was Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Holland & Knight LLP, the country’s eighth largest law firm…He is best known as the outspoken president of the American Bar Association (ABA) who made the first public call to investigate President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Smith’s simple and direct rationale: “No man is above the law,” appeared on the front page of major American papers following the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, October 20, 1973. His words were a defining moment in the American legal system….The gregarious Smith had a long list of friends and admirers including Tom Brokaw, who devoted a chapter of his best-selling book, “The Greatest Generation,” to Smith’s life and achievements…In a country that is cynical and, at times, even disdainful of lawyers, Chesterfield Smith maintained a positive vision of what lawyers could be, using his own success as an example. He believed that lawyers must have an “unselfish involvement in essential public service” and encouraged his colleagues to “be somebody” in their communities.
I met Smith at a bar function about 5 years ago. I was introduced to him by the late Judge Lenore Nesbitt. Smith was a larger than life kind of man who could size you up in a second; his emotional intelligence was off the charts. He seemed like a cross between the great trial lawyer and orator, Clarence Darrow (1857 – 1938)(see, Scopes monkey trial and the movie “Inherit the Wind”) and the great humorist, syndicated newspaper columnist, Indian, cowboy, movie and Broadway star who said “I never met a man I didn’t like”, Will Rogers (1879 – 1938). Smith made me feel like he was genuinely interested in what I had to say.
That man was a born leader.
The Atticus Finch spirit is alive and well today. It lives in Circuit Judge Norman Gerstein and his wife Jackie, General Counsel for The Children’s Home Society. Judge Gerstein and Jackie started, with their own money, a non-profit organization to send underprivileged kids to camps in the summer. The program is called “Summer Fun for Kids”. In 1999, Judge Gerstein had the idea to send some kids to summer camp, kids who did not have the rank and privilege of his two kids. He and his wife sent a few kids to camps in Miami-Dade County.
Fast forward to the summer of 2003 and we see a project with over 200 kids sent principally to three camps, and contributions from several national foundations. The camps to which the program sends its kids include the Shake-A-Leg program in Coconut Grove. Shake-A-Leg offers sailing in specially rigged boats for special needs children. The Summer Fun for Kids program also sends kids to the NFL Youth Education Town, which teaches computer skills and reading, and provides the usual summer activities.
Judge Gerstein’s program is still evolving; he wants to determine more accurately which camp or which activities are best suited for each child. He also wants to expand to a capacity of over 1000 kids, and to start a program in Orlando.
That man is a born leader. Atticus does live.*
*For these tireless efforts, Judge Norman Gerstein will receive the Outstanding Community Service Award from the Dade county Bar Association. This Award will be presented at the next DCBA luncheon, the details of which are contained in this issue of The Bulletin.