Local Obituaries

Randall Berg, attorney who fought for prison reform and affordable legal help, dies at 70

Randall Berg Jr., executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, Inc., stands in the law library of the law firm Steel, Hector & Davis in 2004.
Randall Berg Jr., executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, Inc., stands in the law library of the law firm Steel, Hector & Davis in 2004. Miami Herald File Photo

Randall Berg didn’t take many days off.

The civil rights attorney, who spent four decades fighting for prison reform and locking horns with Florida bureaucracy, was so convincing that he once cajoled a rival assistant attorney general to quit the public sector and join his team — while waiting for a flight at a Tallahassee airport.

“You would be much happier, you need to switch to the other side,” Berg told the man. The two had been on opposite sides of a lawsuit filed against the Department of Children & Families over the treatment of foster children. Randall Marshall, who looked worn out after a day of depositions, did quit, and now leads the Alabama chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I just think he had this really unremitting passion for justice, and an unremitting hostility for injustice,” said Berg’s longtime friend Howard Simon, who recently stepped down as the executive director of the Florida ACLU.

Long hours and long odds couldn’t stop Berg. A diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, forced him to step back from his role as Florida’s chief criminal justice reformer, but not before his work led to the creation of basic safety standards in Florida’s jails and improvements for inmates with disabilities or in need of medical care.

Less than a year after retiring from the Florida Justice Institute, which he co-founded in 1978, Berg died Wednesday at 70.

“For all the years I’ve been here, Randy Berg has been the heart and soul of civil rights enforcement in the State of Florida, especially for people who endure brutal conditions in Florida prisons,” Simon said.

Randy is survived by his wife, Carol, and son Randall C. Berg III and daughter-in-law, Dr. Julia White Berg of Coral Gables, and brothers, Gilchrist B. Berg and H. Bradford Berg of Jacksonville.

As prolific an attorney as he was a fierce advocate for the underserved, Berg quickly earned a reputation as virtually being everywhere at once.

“He went on and on and never stopped,” said Rod Petrey, a co-founder of FJI and the chairman of its board of directors. “That first effort to shine light on Florida’s jails... was really the thing that shot FJI up into the limelight.”

Berg, the former president of the Florida ACLU, helped form the nation’s first Interest on Lawyer Trust Account (IOLTA) program, which pools interest from lawyer trust accounts to provide civil legal aid to the poor at “no cost to lawyers or their clients” and “without taxing the public,” according to information from the National Association of IOLTA Programs.

His work inspired the formation of IOLTA programs in every state and Washington, D.C., which have raised more than $3.5 billion, according to the Florida Justice Institute.

In the 1990s, he settled a $1.2 million housing discrimination lawsuit against real estate developer José Milton following accusations that Milton’s North Miami Beach apartment complex repeatedly turned away black renters.

About 15 years before Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment that aimed to restore voting rights for more than a million felons, immediately following the fiasco of the 2000 election, Berg stood at the forefront of the new fight for civil rights in the Sunshine State.

Filing a lawsuit on behalf of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators, Berg helped tens of thousands of Floridians secure their civil rights after discovering that the state had illegally failed to notify former inmates of their voting status.

“Randy’s legal work led to the restoration of voting rights in that lawsuit for more than 100,000 people,” Simon said.

Following the passage of Amendment 4 in 2018, Simon said, Berg was elated that the will of Florida’s voters was recognized. But in recent weeks, as the Florida Legislature deliberates how to craft executing language for the amendment, Simon said the need for aggressive civil rights lawyers is always in short supply.

“There is always a need to hold government accountable, but my God, especially government in Florida,” Simon said. “This state needs young, aggressive attorneys at the Florida Justice Institute and the ACLU to continuously challenge what state government does, especially the state Legislature. I shudder to think what Florida would look like if over the last many decades there wasn’t a Florida Justice Institute and an ACLU to take on Florida government.”

Dante Trevisani, the executive director of Florida Justice Institute, started working there as an intern. He said the guidance Berg provided him was instrumental to his rise in the organization, and that the institute would work to continue Berg’s legacy.

“I don’t think any other lawyer in the state has done more to represent underrepresented people in vulnerable communities,” Trevisani said. “His work has transformed the Florida prison system. He transformed the way that people in prison are treated. I don’t think anybody’s done more for that.”

Berg was named the 2017 Jane Elizabeth Curran Distinguished Service Award recipient by the Florida Bar Foundation, and the recipient of the Steven M. Goldstein Award for Excellence in 2018 for his organization’s work to secure accommodations for disabled prisoners.

“Randy’s life-long commitment to improving the lives of Florida’s poor and disenfranchised impacted thousands,” the board of directors said in a statement. “We at the Foundation are exceedingly proud to have worked with Randy and were honored to watch as he built FJI into the extraordinary program it is today. Our thoughts are with Randy’s family and the FJI team.”

Funeral services will be April 24 at 4 p.m. at St. Philips Episcopal Church in Coral Gables, 1121 Andalusia Ave. The family asks that in lieu in flowers, donations be sent to Florida Justice Institute and any tributes be submitted to https://www.vanorsdel.com/obituaries/Randall-Berg/.