Jurist who opined on death penalty, presidential recount will now weigh in on FSU’s Jameis Winston

He wrote hefty opinions on abortion and death-penalty appeals, and weighed in on the recount of the controversial 2000 presidential election.

But now retired state Supreme Court Justice Major Harding faces a different kind of high-profile case.

Harding will decide if Florida State’s Heisman-Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston violated the university’s code of student conduct. Winston is accused of sexually assaulting a classmate in 2012. He has said the encounter in question was consensual and denies wrongdoing.

The consequences of Harding’s decision could be far reaching.

Should he find that Winston broke the code, the quarterback could be barred from next month’s college football playoffs, jeopardizing Florida State’s chances of winning a second consecutive national title. Such a decision might also hurt Winston’s chances of being selected in the first round of the National Football League draft.

A decision that Winston did not break the code, however, is likely to spark outrage among victim rights advocates nationwide.

Observers say Harding, 79, is the right retired jurist to make the call.

“He’s not the type of person who is going to weigh the consequences for the university or someone’s future athletic career,” said former Florida State University President Sandy D'Alemberte, who is also a former president of the American Bar Association. “He is a person who is capable to determining what the truth is, and reaching his conclusion based on that.”

Harding, who retired from the bench in 2002, practices with the Tallahassee firm Ausley McMullen. He did not return calls from the Herald/Times on Friday.

Colleagues described Harding as judicious and analytical, and always garbed in a bow tie.

“He is very mild-mannered, even tempered, calm,” said former Justice Raoul Cantero, who replaced Harding on the high court in 2002.

Administrative Law Judge Thomas Crapps, who served as Harding’s first law clerk, described his attention to detail and his keen focus on the facts.

“He’s no stranger to making difficult decisions,” Crapps said. “He will follow the law.”

Tallahassee attorney DuBose Ausley pointed out that Harding is active in the Rotary Club and St. Peter’s Anglican Church, and has regular tennis matches with retired Supreme Court Justice Stephen Grimes.

A graduate of Wake Forest University School of Law, Harding was named to the high court in 1991. He was considered a moderate on the bench.

Harding authored several key opinions, including a unanimous ruling that struck down portions of a law intended to speed up executions. He also wrote a 2001 ruling that upheld a ban on using state money for abortions.

“The right of privacy in the Florida Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose an abortion,” he wrote. “[It] does not create an entitlement to the financial resources to avail herself of this choice.”

There was also the case about the contested 2000 presidential election results. Harding was on the dissenting end of the 4-3 decision to recount.

He stayed largely out of the public eye for more than a decade — until being named the hearing officer in the Winston case in October.

Winston was neither arrested nor charged after a criminal investigation last year. But Florida State is required to investigate sexual assault allegations under Title IX, which prohibits gender-based discrimination in education programs.

Under the law, the hearing officer needs only to find a 50.1 percent chance that an assault took place to hold the accused party accountable.

Attorneys for Winston and the woman who said she was raped made their cases during a two-day hearing earlier this month. Harding is expected to issue a decision and possible sanction next week. Either side could appeal.

FSU is one of four teams selected to play in the first College Football Playoff, beginning Jan. 1. FSU plays Oregon at the Rose Bowl, while Alabama plays Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. The winners meet Jan. 12 for the national championship.

Henry M. Coxe, III, a Jacksonville attorney and former president of the Florida Bar, said Harding’s judgment wouldn’t be clouded by football.

“I’ve never had a conversation with him about any sport,” said Coxe, whose friendship with Harding has spanned decades.

Retired Justice Gerald Kogan said the Winston case “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans based on the types of cases that Justice Harding and the rest of us on the court had to handle over the years.”

“We had life-and-death cases,” he said, pointing to opinions they wrote regarding the death penalty.

Coxe said he had full confidence in Harding’s ability to render a fair decision.

“Whatever it is, nobody will question the intellectual honesty of the decision, and that’s more important than anything,” he said.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.