Ben F. Overton first donned the robes of the Florida Supreme Court in 1974, an era when the elected institution was marred by seedy politics and scandal.
By the time Overton retired a quarter of a century later, he was credited with stewarding the high court through sweeping and lauded reforms, embracing technology and transparency, and authoring more than 1,400 opinions.
His legacy will be remembered Jan. 7 as the former chief justice — the first appointee in the merit selection and retention system that prevails today — lies in state at the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee. Overton, 82, died Saturday from complications of heart surgery in his hometown of Gainesville.
Even though he had long retired, Overton nevertheless continued to push to keep politics out of the judiciary. In September, he joined five other former justices in authoring a letter speaking out against the Republican Party of Florida’s unprecedented push to oust three current justices over their rulings.
“The entire point of a fair and impartial judiciary is that its decisions will not be influenced by outside forces such as campaign donations or political pressure,” Overton and the other justices wrote of the ultimately failed effort. “In the past, even party leaders who disagreed with a court’s decision understood the vital importance of a fair and impartial judiciary.”
Overton certainly understood the dangers of politics in the judiciary.
For decades, Florida Supreme Court justices were elected, unless a governor was forced to appoint a justice because of an unexpected vacancy during the middle of a term.
But in the mid-1970s, the court was in turmoil. Three of seven justices were under investigation for a wide range of misconduct, including meddling in lower courts on behalf of political supporters and authoring an opinion in favor of a utility company after privately meeting with one of the company’s lawyers.
With disgust over the Supreme Court mounting, Gov. Reubin Askew instituted a merit-selection process that limited a governor’s choice to a list recommended by a separate commission. In March 1974, Askew appointed Overton through that system to fill a vacancy
One year later, Florida voters decided to drop the election of justices, adopting the current merit retention system in which they vote to keep justices on the bench after appointment.
Former Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. England Jr., who was elected shortly after Overton assumed the bench, recalled that the court was “disregarded” despite the slew of new justices taking the reins.
“We were in disarray,” England said. “Our attitude was, ‘We’re just going to do the job we were elected to or appointed for and things will get better because we think we’re doing the right things.’ So we just hunkered down and did the job.”
England called Overton a “prince of a human being” who was a role model for the new justices coming during the 1970s and beyond, restoring the image of the Supreme Court.
Born in 1926 in Green Bay, Wisc., Overton earned his law degree from the University of Florida. His career included stints as St. Petersburg city attorney and as a special assistant attorney general.
He also was in private practice before becoming a Pinellas County circuit judge in 1964. He served as the circuit’s chief judge before ascending to the state’s high court.
Overton, who served as chief justice from 1976 to 1978, pushed for transparency with the public, pushing publication of a manual that explained how justices processed the cases they decided.
England recalled that Overton even streamlined how clerks’ files were sent to justices, a seemingly minor tweak that saved untold hours of court time.
The use of judicial resources was important to Overton — he and England railed against the Supreme Court reviewing lower appeals court rulings that did not specifically outline an opinion. Voters agreed and later amended the state’s constitution to bar the high court from doing just that.
Overton also embraced technology, making sure early computers made their way to the court in the 1980s and moving into the digital age in the 1990s.
“He not only helped make Florida one of the first states to allow television coverage of court cases, but also was instrumental in making the state Supreme Court one of the first in the world to have a website,” according to a court news release. “Overton later played a pivotal role in seeing that every Florida Supreme Court case was televised, webcast, and stored in an on-line archive.”
Overton retired in 1999, but nonetheless stayed engaged. In 2008, he and five other former justices urged lawmakers to revamp how the state deals with the mentally ill in the justice system.
He is survived by his children, Judge William H. Overton, Robert M. Overton, and Catherine L. Overton. He was predeceased by his wife Marilyn.
A service will be held Saturday in Gainesville and he will be buried Jan. 9 in St. Petersburg.