Passing the Gavel
Upon retiring from the Florida Supreme Court bench, Charlie Wells reflects on the 2000 presidential recount and returning home to Orlando.
|Now a retired justice, Charlie Wells occupies |
a different seat in the Florida Supreme Court
Charlie Wells can remember spending many evenings working on puzzles as a little boy in his family’s Gatlin Ave-nue home in south Orange County.
He liked them all.
Jigsaws. Crosswords. He recalls that on summer nights there’d be a White Sox game playing on the radio in the living room, carried on the night air by a Chicago superstation.
The just-retired Florida Supreme Court justice thinks those puzzles were good training for his last 15 years on the bench, which included a pivotal role as chief justice of the seven-member court during Florida’s controversial 2000 presidential recount.
“Cases are legal puzzles,” Wells says. “You are trying to figure out the solution. We had cases that had worldwide interest, cases that were of interest only to the parties there. And cases that were so simple and straightforward, you wondered why in the world they were there. Others were so hard they made your head hurt.”
Wells stepped down from the court March 2, two days before he turned 70, the mandatory retirement age for justices. After 45 years in law, he has mixed feelings about hanging up the black robe.
“I hate to be the recipient of it, but I think a mandatory retirement age is a good thing for courts of last resort. It allows there to be new blood on the court. You know, I personally think it would be good for the United States Supreme Court.”
Fifteen years of working and living in the state’s capital didn’t lure Wells away from his hometown for good. Wells and his wife, Linda, have owned a home on Lake Butler in Windermere since 1974. They raised their three children, who grew up to be two lawyers and a pediatrician, in that house.
“We had a wonderful time in Tallahassee, but Windermere is still home,” says Linda Wells, an attorney with the Carlton Fields law firm until 1994, when then-Governor Lawton Chiles appointed her husband to the Supreme Court.
Charlie Wells went straight from a personal injury, private law practice to the high court. But he and Chiles had known each other casually for years, having crossed paths during the 1970 campaign season.
“Walkin’ Lawton” was stumping across the state in his first campaign for U.S. Senate. Wells was a Democrat running for a state House seat.
The young Orlando lawyer’s campaign slogan: “I Dig Wells.”
“You’d think that would’ve worked, given the times,” Wells says of his unsuccessful (and only) bid for the Legislature.
In leaving the court and his $161,000-a-year job as justice, Wells doesn’t intend to spend his days sitting around on the back porch, putting together jigsaw puzzles. Instead, he has joined the politically influential GrayRobinson law firm and now divides his time between the Tallahassee and Orlando offices.
He’ll mostly concentrate on appellate work and state government cases. But it doesn’t take much to get Wells talking about Bush v. Gore, the central case of his legal career.
“For someone who had always been immersed [in] and fascinated by government, it was exciting and exhilarating but also exhausting,” Wells says of the 36-day recount, which ended December 12, 2000, when a divided U.S. Supreme Court effectively declared Republican George W. Bush the winner in Florida. With it, Bush won the White House.
The ruling halted a statewide recount ordered by Wells’ court just days earlier. But Wells, a lifelong Democrat, had refused to support ordering the recount, believing the action violated clear deadlines set in state law.
From the losing side of his own court’s 4-3 decision, Wells wrote a stark dissent. He warned that the Florida court’s ruling “propels this country and this state into an unprecedented and unnecessary constitutional crisis.”
More than eight years later, Wells says he is proud of his two-year term as chief justice and the way the court responded to the presidential crisis.
“I can’t tell you that it was all smooth throughout the process,” Wells says. “But it wasn’t a situation where there was an extraordinary amount of personal animosity. We worked with real intellectual honesty, and that’s what you want a court to do.”
Barry Richard, a Tallahassee lawyer who represented Bush during the Florida legal fight, says Wells showed his character during that tumultuous time.
“You can tell he had strong feelings about the case,” Richard says. “But he always took pains to respect his fellow jurists and maintain civility. He’s smart and well-prepared. But he’s also a really nice person.”
During Wells’ time on the court, justices also drew nationwide attention for the Terri Schiavo case and their ruling on Governor Jeb Bush’s private-school voucher program. In addition, there were a number of death penalty cases, including the court’s defense of the electric chair, which the Legislature eventually replaced with lethal injection.
Wells, a death penalty supporter, says he has “struggled” with the issue—but not for what might be the expected reasons of life and death. Instead, Wells says it’s wrong that Florida allows dozens of inmates to languish for decades on Death Row.
“That doesn’t meet the test of treatment we should afford all human beings,” Wells says, as if explaining how he solved an especially challenging crossword puzzle. “If they are to be executed, then the execution should go forward.”
Martin McClain, a Broward County lawyer who represents Death Row inmates, scoffed at Wells’ stance.
“He may be troubled by how long inmates are kept on Death Row. But he seems more troubled by people like me, who file appeals,” McClain says.
Wells, though, defends his hard line as rooted in respect for the law—and in the need for deadlines. It’s the same legal compass that guided his dissent in the presidential recount case, he says.
Have all the stresses and strains of the job been worth it for Wells? Looking back, there’s no puzzle about that.
“It’s been a rare privilege for me to have a seat at the table,” he reflects. “It was a big job for a guy who really thought he had it made as captain of the Boone High basketball team.”