Florida Chief Justice Ricky Polston ends practice of congratulating new Eagle Scouts

 

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Florida’s highest-ranking judge ended a longstanding practice of sending letters of congratulation to Eagle Scouts earlier this year as the Boy Scouts of America agonized publicly over whether to admit gay members.

Chief Justice Ricky Polston of the Florida Supreme Court discontinued the letter-writing policy in February, when the organization was rethinking its policy.

The scouts’ national council voted Thursday to lift the ban on gay members, while keeping in place a ban on gay men serving as leaders.

Polston declined a request for an interview Tuesday. A court spokeswoman said his action was prompted by the possibility that scout-related litigation could come before the court, not by his personal views on the issue.

“There was a growing potential for this to be a matter in litigation before the court, and an obligation to maintain that separation from matters that are before the court,” spokeswoman Jackie Hallifax said. “The court and the chief justice have to be very careful to avoid pre-judging issues that may come before them.”

Polston, 57, an accountant and lawyer, was a judge on the First District Court of Appeal when he was appointed to the state’s highest court in 2008 by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

An active Christian, Polston grew up on a farm in Graceville, a rural Panhandle community, and he and his wife, Deborah, have 10 children, including six brothers from a racially diverse family who had been in foster care.

He began a two-year term as chief justice in July.

For years, Eagle Scouts in Florida have received packets of glowing letters from top state leaders, including U.S. senators, members of Congress, the governor and chief justice.

In a letter Polston sent last Oct. 8 on the official court letterhead to Eagle Scout Anthony James Harrison of Pembroke Pines, the justice praised the scout’s dedication and perseverance and wrote: “Our communities need leaders and role models at school, on the playing field, and most of all in social settings where peer pressure may cause some to forget that it is their own personal character and future that is on the line.”

Polston’s decision to stop writing the letters of congratulation prompted a letter of disappointment from Eston “Dusty” Melton of Coconut Grove, an Eagle Scout who has long been active in the organization, and who took it upon himself to solicit letters of congratulation from public officials to Eagle Scouts.

“I certainly respect your decision to discontinue the court’s issuance of congratulatory letters to new Eagle Scouts, and I suspect I know the reasoning behind it,” Melton wrote to Polston. The justice did not reply, according to the court.

Melton, a prominent lobbyist in Miami-Dade, is a former political writer for The Miami Herald. In an opinion column published in The Herald on May 22, the day before the ban on gay membership was lifted, he called the policy “homophobic” and “thoroughly repugnant,” and noted that the Boy Scouts of America had earned tens of millions of dollars over the past two decades from an educational supplies company, Learning for Life Inc., which opposes discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Polston, while in private practice, successfully defended the state law that created the “Choose Life” specialty license plate. It was one of the cases he cited in his application for a Supreme Court vacancy, in which he also wrote at length about adopting children in foster care.

“I am a product and reflection of Florida,” Polston wrote. “My children are racially diverse, which gives me a better appreciation of different cultures and how they react to each other. In short, I am not isolated as a judge.”

Polston’s wife, Deborah, is a Clearwater native and University of South Florida graduate. She is the author of children’s adventure books that emphasize reading comprehension, public speaking and leadership, and was appointed Florida’s Human Trafficking Advocate by Gov. Rick Scott last year.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com.

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