Retired Justice Ben Overton, a very significant figure in the history of Florida’s justice system, died in Gainesville on Dec. 29.
Justice Overton’s judicial career spanned some four decades, first as a trial court judge and then as a Florida Supreme Court justice. His career as a jurist, and the important decisions he participated in, mark him as one of the most important Florida legal figures of the 20th Century. In addition to being proud to have known and worked with such an honorable, hard-working and warm man, I must note that he was the first Florida justice selected under our current merit selection system.
Tragically, the early 1970’s represented a low point in the public image of the Florida Supreme Court due to allegations of ethical misconduct by several of its members. Those allegations resulted in resignations and public chastisement of the accused justices. Gov. Reuben Askew, troubled by the scandal many thought was a result of justices competing in state-wide elections that carried all the baggage of other political elections including fundraising and stump speeches, believed there must be a better way to select justices without political or partisan promises. Askew found his answer in a newly emerging system in several other states called judicial merit selection and retention which was adopted in Florida.
Overton was among the small group of nominees selected by the first merit-selection commission. He had established a solid reputation as a hard-working, no-nonsense judge of impeccable character, and, after Askew’s own investigation and personal interview, he was chosen as the first justice under the merit system.
His role in validating the merit selection system has particular relevance today in light of recent legislative attempts to weaken that system.
Fortunately, the citizens of Florida, when asked their views, resoundingly rejected those attempts to tamper with our system of merit selection and retention, and Justice Overton’s reputation and service lives on through this system.
Harry Lee Anstead, retired justice, Tallahassee