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Florida's Early Federal Legal History (1824-1940)

By: Ira Cohen, Esquire, Partner, Henkel & Cohen, P.A., Miami
Republished from The Federal Lawyer, July/August 2021

Around the time of its statehood in 1845, Florida was largely a wet and wild swampland that was very sparsely populated. By way of illustration, the 1840 census registered only 446 people in all of Dade County.1 In barestsummary, it was a dangerous, lawless, and violent place by most contemporary accounts. Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, brown recluse spiders, Florida black bears, and American alligators were, as they still are today, in great abundance.

During the time that Florida had been a territory, a host of important historical events had transpired around the nascent country, some of which indelibly affected Florida and its hardy inhabitants. The White House had been the lodging of Presidents James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and James K. Polk. Among other notable events that had transpired during that epoch were the Indian Removal Act (1830), Nat Turner’s Revolt (1831), the Second Seminole War (1835), the Battle of the Alamo (1836), and, most regrettably, the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from the Southeastern United States (1838).2

In its position as a U.S. territory,3 the courts constituted therein were, of course, federal courts. It is quite important to note, however, that they were not Article III courts, but rather territorial courts. These territorial courts were purely creatures of congressional enactments under Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

As for the law writ large, Florida’s Supreme Court historians have mused that, in a very real sense, Floridians can boast to have law that is almost 1,000 years old4, which long predates the state’s very existence.5 This is not a byproduct or calculation of some “new math”; rather, as a matter of objective fact, the common law6 (as it existed in England on July 4, 1776) was adopted by the Florida Legislative Council in 1829 (while still holding territorial status).7 Leaving behind the folk courts of the shires and hundreds, the Norman Conquest in 1066 catapulted the law in England into a new and long-enduring phase.

As a postlude to America’s independence from Great Britain, the calendar pages had flipped a good 70 years when Florida finally was admitted to the Union in 1845 as the 27th state. The “Lone Star” State of Texas was admitted just ahead of Florida and entered the Union earlier that same year. James K. Polk was the commander in chief, and it was about one year before the Mexican-American War would begin.8

During that time, Florida law and its court system were affected, in some measure, by the interplay of several national invasions and influences.9 To be sure, Florida may accurately be referred to as the Land of Five Flags. During the 18th century, for example, Florida was, at various times, ruled by no less than three European powers: England, Spain, and France. The fourth flag was, of course, the Stars and Stripes.10 Then, in the early 1860s, after Florida had finally gained U.S. statehood, it shortly thereafter seceded from the United States (raising the Stars and Bars11), only to share in the ignominious denouement of the Confederacy.12

By the 1830s, Florida was divided informally into three areas: East Florida, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Suwannee River; Middle Florida, from the Suwannee to the Apalachicola River; and West Florida, from the Apalachicola to the Perdido River. The southern area of the territory (i.e., south of present-day Gainesville) was scarcely settled at all. The entire territory’s economy was based on agriculture. The plantations, as it happened, were concentrated in Middle Florida, and their owners established the political and cultural tone for all of Florida from the time of statehood until after the Civil War.

Early Florida Federal (Territorial) Courts

In the second quarter of the 1800s, as mentioned above, Florida was a U.S. territory. There were some lower courts established and a Florida Territorial Court of Appeals. The judges seated on the latter court served short, four-year, terms. The Florida territorial courts were established statutorily and under Article I of the U.S. Constitution. As such, they did not exercise federal jurisdiction reserved for Article III federal district courts, such as admiralty jurisdiction.

In an early case pertaining to the jurisdiction of such courts,13 Chief Justice John Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court decided an appeal by holding that the Florida territorial courts were established under Article I of Constitution. The case had been before the territorial court for a ruling on the disposition of cotton bales that had been salvaged from a sunken ship. The judges of such courts did not enjoy lifetime appointments. Therefore, reasoned Justice Marshall, such courts could not exercise federal judicial powers, such as admiralty jurisdiction.

At that time, there were two territorial courts of appeal, one located in “East Florida” in St. Augustine and the other situated in “West Florida” in Pensacola. One of the standout judges of the Florida Territorial Court system was Hon. Samuel James Douglas (1812-1873). Judge Douglas went on later to become the 16th justice of the Florida Supreme Court (1866-1868).

Judge Douglas was born and educated in Virginia. When he was just 29, in 1841, President John Tyler appointed him to the federal bench as a judge of the Territory of Florida’s Middle District Superior Court. It was the same year that John Quincy Adams had argued, and won, the fabled Amistad (slave ship) case before the U.S. Supreme Court.14

Judge Douglas served until 1845, at which time Florida attained statehood. After a relatively short stint in private practice, President Zachary Taylor appointed Judge Douglas to be U.S. customs collector in Key West, Fla. (1849-1853).

After the commencement of hostilities in the Civil War, Judge Douglas returned to his home state of Virginia to sit on the bench of a court of the Confederacy. With war’s end, in 1865 he returned to Tallahassee. In 1866, Governor David Walker appointed Judge Douglas to the Florida Supreme Court, where he served for only two years. In 1868, with a new constitution and a new governor in place, other justices were appointed to the high court.

On the same day as statehood, Congress had the foresight to also create the U.S. District Court for the District of Florida.15 As was the case with all other states at the time, Congress made Florida into only one federal district. Moreover, despite the immense geographical area of the newly created District of Florida, Congress authorized only a single judgeship. Thus, one man was the face, and fount, of federal law for all of Florida.

In those early days, the District of Florida was not yet assigned to a circuit. Instead, the district court was afforded appellate jurisdictional powers (excepting appeals and writs of error16 to the U.S. Supreme Court). However, two years after statehood, in 1847, Congress bifurcated the Florida Congress into a pair of judicial districts, to wit, the Northern District and the Southern District.17 Each district was given one judgeship, and the then-sitting judge for the District of Florida, Judge Bronson, was assigned to the Northern District18 (where the state’s population’s center resided at the time).

It was quickly decided that appeals from cases in the Florida federal district courts were to be handed up to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Understandably, the appellate jurisdiction of the district courts in Florida was thereupon abolished.

Several cities within the Northern District already had been established for quite some time. St. Augustine dated back to 1565. Jacksonville was founded in 1832, Tampa in 1855, and Ocala and Gainesville in 1869.

Early Federal Judges of the District Courts of Florida

Hon. Isaac Hopkins Bronson (1802-1855): The First Federal District Judge in Florida

In 1846, the first (and only) federal judge for the embryonic U.S. District Court of Florida, Judge Isaac Hopkins Bronson, ascended to the bench. That same year, the United States and Britain entered into the Oregon Treaty, Iowa became a state, and California almost became independent during the so-called Bear Flag Revolt in “Alto California.”

Judge Bronson was a U.S. congressman from New York19 and a U.S. district judge for the District of Florida and, later, the Northern District of Florida.20 He was born up north on Oct. 16, 1802, in either Rutland, N.Y., or Waterbury, Conn. As was expected of other lawyers of the time, Judge Bronson read law21 in 1822. He was admitted to the bar and was in private practice in Watertown, N.Y., from 1822-1837. He also served a constituency in Congress from 1837-1839. He was a judge in New York from 1839-1840, before moving to St. Augustine, in St. John’s County, Florida Territory. Way down south in Florida, there were already several railroads in operation when Judge Bronson steamed into town.

Judge Bronson later moved to Palatka, Putnam County, Florida Territory. He then served as a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Florida Territory for its last five years in existence, from 1840-1845.

At age 44, on May 5, 1846, Judge Bronson was nominated by President Polk to the U.S. District Court for the District of Florida to a new judicial seat. Confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Aug. 8, 1846, he received his commission the same day (which was standard operating procedure at the time).

Two years later, Judge Bronson was reassigned to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on Feb. 23, 1847, to the newly created seat there. Judge Bronson served in that seat for eight years until his death on Aug. 13, 1855, in Palatka, Fla.

Early Judges of the Southern and Northern Districts of Florida

Hon. William Marvin (1808-1902): Public Servant Extraordinaire

Judge William Marvin was a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Florida.22 He also served as the seventh governor of the state of Florida.

Judge Marvin was born in Fairfield, N.Y., on April 14, 1808. A farm boy, he later studied law with a local attorney and gained admission to the New York Bar in 1833, at age 25. He practiced in Phelps, N.Y., until 1835.

In 1835, Judge Marvin was appointed as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida Territory, where he served until 1839.23 He also wore separate hats as both a member of the Florida Territorial Council (1837) and a delegate to the Florida Constitutional Convention (1838-1839).

Judge Marvin, age 31 at the time, became the judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida Territory in 1839 and sat until 1845. After leaving the bench, he resumed practicing law in Key West, where he served as mayor in 1861.

Back in 1847, while Abraham Lincoln was in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Battles of Buena Vista and Vera Cruz were waged in the Mexican-American war. On March 2 of that year, Judge Marvin was nominated by President Polk to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida when he was just 39 years old. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 3, 1847 and received his commission the same day.

Judge Marvin remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War, so the judge’s federal judicial service was terminated when he resigned on July 1, 1863. The next year, on Feb. 20, 1864, the Battle of Olustee was waged near Ocean Pond in Baker County. It was the largest Civil War battle in Florida and resulted in a decisive win for the Southern forces.24

Following his resignation from the federal bench, Judge Marvin retraced his steps back north and resumed private practice in New York. But he later renewed his Florida connection. At the end of the Civil War, Judge Marvin was appointed as provisional governor of Florida by President Andrew Johnson. He served from July 13, 1865, to Dec. 20, 1865,25 and, wearing that new hat, he oversaw Florida’s effort to repeal its secession ordinance and prepare to rejoin the Union.

Yet, his public service was not done. Judge Marvin ran for the U.S. Senate and also, in 1866, served a second term as mayor of Key West. He left Florida during Reconstruction and returned to the practice of law, while remaining active in politics. He died in Skaneateles, N.Y., on July 9, 1902, at the ripe old age of 94.

Judge Marvin’s political, public, and service life spanned more than 65 years. His formidable legacy also includes the fact that he was the author of a nationally recognized textbook on marine salvage law: A Treatise on the Law of Wreck and Salvage.26

Hon. McQueen McIntosh (1822-1868): Judge for the Blue/Judge for the Gray

Judge McQueen McIntosh was a U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Florida.27 Born in 1822 near Darien, Ga., Judge McIntosh was a planter in Florida, but he entered the private practice of law in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1850, the same year that California became a state.

By that year, the population of Dade County had dwindled down to just 159 people.28 President Taylor had died while in office, and Vice President Fillmore became president, only to be succeeded in 1852 by Franklin Pierce.

Judge McIntosh was nominated by President Pierce on Feb. 27, 1856, to the seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern

District of Florida vacated by Judge Bronson. Confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 11, 1856, he received his commission the same day. Later that year, James Buchanan became the new president.

In January 1861, Florida seceded from the Union, along with the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. As a result, Judge McIntosh resigned, and his service was terminated by the government on Jan. 3, 1861, due to the impending hostilities of the Civil War. Following his resignation from the federal bench, Judge McIntosh shed his blue suit for a gray one, donned a new black robe, and served as a judge of the Confederate District Court for the District of Florida starting in 1861.

By the end of that year, Abraham Lincoln had become president of the United States, and Jefferson Davis had been elected president of the Confederacy. The Civil War had commenced at Fort Sumpter, and the (First) Battle of Bull Run was in the history books.

Judge McIntosh died on June 18, 1868, in Pensacola. During that same year Congress passed a number of Reconstruction Acts, Ulysses S. Grant became president, and the state of Florida, along with the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina, was re-admitted to the Union.

Hon. Philip Fraser (1814-1876): Attorney, Mayor, and Judge

Judge Philip Fraser was a U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Florida.29 Born in Montrose, Pa., on Jan. 27, 1814, Judge Fraser practiced as an attorney in Jacksonville, Fla. He also served as mayor of Jacksonville from 1855 to 1856.

On June 14, 1862, at age 48, Judge Fraser was nominated by President Abraham Lincoln to the seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida vacated by Judge McIntosh. In 1862, the year that General Robert E. Lee was placed in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, Judge Fraser was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on July 17, 1862, and, as was then par for the course, received his commission the same day.

In 1876, the year of a disputed presidential election, Central Park opened in New York, and the National League of Baseball was formed to showcase America’s pastime. Out West, Colorado became a state and Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, along with his ill-fated troops, made their “Last Stand” and were massacred at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana Territory. Judge Fraser remained on the bench until his death in that year, on July 26, 1876, at the age of 62.

Hon. Thomas Jefferson Boynton (1838-1871): Lawyer, Newsman, Judge

Judge Thomas Jefferson Boynton was a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Florida.30 Born on Aug. 31, 1838, in Amherst, Ohio, Judge Boynton read the law in 1858, the year of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.31

Judge Boynton was in private practice in St. Joseph, Mo., from 1858-1861. He worked in the newspaper industry as a reporter and editor until 1861, and then he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida from 1861-1863, the latter year being the time of the legendary Battle of Gettysburg.

Judge Boynton received a recess appointment from President Lincoln on Oct. 19, 1863, to the seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida that was vacated by Judge Marvin. He was a youthful 25 years of age. In New York, there were draft riots. In the South, pro-Union Virginia counties seceded and became the state of West Virginia.

In 1864, Nevada became a state and Union General Sherman was hell-bent on his infamous “March to the Sea.” Judge Boynton was again nominated for the same position by President Lincoln on Jan. 5, 1864. He was confirmed by the Senate a short time later and received his commission on January 20 of that year.

Judge Boynton was 32 years old when his service terminated on Jan. 1, 1870, after six years, due to his resignation. About a month later, the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Right to Vote Not Denied by Race, Color, or Previous Servitude) was ratified. In 1870, according to the census, Dade County had only 85 inhabitants.32 A year later, Boynton untimely passed away in New York at age 33.

Hon. John McKinney (1829-1871): “Princeton Man” and Short-Term Judge

Judge John McKinney was a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Florida.33 Born in Lycoming County, Pa. (in 1829), Judge McKinney graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1848 with an Artium Baccalaureus (A.B.) degree. That was the same year in which Dred Scott sued for his freedom.34

Judge McKinney read law in 1850—the same year that California became a state, and the Compromise of 1850 (with the Fugitive Slave Act) was passed by Congress. Judge McKinney served as a clerk in the Solicitor’s Office of the U.S. Department of the Treasury in Washington, D.C., beginning in 1861. He received a recess appointment from President Ulysses S. Grant on Nov. 8, 1870, to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida vacated by Judge Boynton. He thereafter was nominated to the same position by President Grant on Dec. 7, 1870, and confirmed and commissioned by the U.S. Senate on Feb. 18, 1871.

In 1871, the New York Times went public with evidence of Boss Tweed’s avaricious crimes, and New York’s political atmosphere was all aflame; meanwhile, the city of Chicago was literally burning, devastated by the Great Fire. Sadly, Judge McKinney only sat on the Florida federal bench for less than a year, when his service terminated on Oct. 12, 1871, due to his death at just 42 years of age.

Hon. James William Locke (1837-1922): 40 Years on the Florida Federal Bench

Judge James William Locke was a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Florida.35 He was born in Wilmington, Vt., in 1837, the same year that Oberlin College became the first coeducational college in the United States.

James William Locke read law to enter the bar in 1859. In that year, abolitionist John Brown was busy raiding Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., and the Comstock Lode (of silver) was discovered in Virginia City, Nev., then Utah Territory. Judge Locke served as paymaster’s clerk in the U.S. Navy from 1861-1865 during the American Civil War. He was engaged in the private practice of law in Key West, Fla., from 1865-1872.

Judge Locke served as county superintendent of education for Monroe County and as a clerk and, later, commissioner of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.36 He served as a judge of the Monroe County Court from 1868-1870 and as a member of the Florida Senate from 1870-1872.

President Grant nominated Judge Locke to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on Jan. 15, 1872, to the seat vacated by Judge McKinney. Confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Feb. 1, 1872, he received his commission that day.

In 1912, the Girl Scouts of the USA was born, and the RMS Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg. Judge Locke’s service ended on July 4 of that year; he retired after over four decades on the bench. He was President Grant’s longest-serving judicial appointee and the longest to have served as a federal judge in Florida. In fall 1922, Judge Locke died at age 85, on September 5, in Kittery, Maine.

Hon. Thomas Settle (1831-1888): State Supreme Court Judge and Federal Jurist

Judge Thomas Settle had a remarkably busy career before he ascended the Florida federal bench. He was a U.S. envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Peru, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, and, finally, a U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Florida.37

Born on Jan. 23, 1831, in Rockingham County, N.C., Judge Settle received an A.B. degree in 1850 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1854, the Whig party collapsed, the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed with Japan, and Judge Settle read the law at Richmond Hill Law School. He served in North Carolina politics until 1859.

Judge Settle returned to private practice in North Carolina from 1860-1861. He was solicitor for the Fourth Judicial Circuit of North Carolina in 1861 and from 1862-1868. In the interregnum, he was a captain in the Confederate States Army from 1861-1862. After the war ended, he was elected as a member of the North Carolina Senate and was speaker of that body. He rose to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina from 1868-1871 and again from 1872-1876.

Judge Settle thereafter was nominated by President Ulysses S. Grant on Jan. 26, 1877, to the seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida vacated by Judge Fraser. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Jan. 30, 1877, and received his commission the same day, in the year that the Nez Perce War started and Reconstruction ended.

Judge Settle’s service terminated after 11 years on the bench, on Dec. 1, 1888, upon his death in Raleigh, N.C., at age 57.

Hon. Charles Swayne (1842-1907): Impeached, but Not Convicted

Judge Charles Swayne was a U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Florida38 whose claim to fame is that he prevailed over an impeachment effort leveled against him.

Born in Guyencourt, Del., on Aug. 10, 1842, in the year of Dorr’s Rebellion (a mini-civil war) in Rhode Island, Judge Swayne received a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1871. He was involved in the private practice of law in Philadelphia from 1871-1885 and, thereafter, in Pensacola, Fla., from 1885-1889. In 1888, his bid as a candidate for the Florida Supreme Court was unsuccessful.

Judge Swayne received a recess appointment from President Benjamin Harrison on May 17, 1889, to the seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida vacated by Judge Settle. He was nominated to the same position by President Harrison on Dec. 5, 1889. In that year, telephone service was first instituted in Miami. Judge Swayne was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on April 1, 1890, and received his commission the same day.

Teddy Roosevelt was elected president in 1904; the Panama Canal Zone was acquired in that year; and the World’s Fair was held in St. Louis. It was also the year that Judge Swayne was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives (on December 13). The judge was accused of filing false travel vouchers, improperly using private railroad cars, unlawfully imprisoning two attorneys for contempt, and living outside of his judicial district. The charges against the popular jurist did not stick.

Swayne’s impeachment trial in the Senate lasted about two and a half months. When it ended, on Feb. 27, 1905, the Senate voted to acquit on each of the 12 articles. Curiously enough, it appears that there was little doubt that Judge Swayne actually was guilty of some of the offenses charged against him. Ostensibly, his lawyer admitted as much, but characterized the judge’s lapses in judgment as “inadvertent.” The Senate, moreover, was quite forgiving and simply refused to convict Judge Swayne because the senators did not believe the judge’s personal peccadilloes amounted to the required lofty bar of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Judge Swayne, thus, survived his impeachment ordeal and went on to serve for two more years in judicial office before he died on July 5, 1907, at age 65.

Hon. William Bostwick Sheppard (1860-1934): U.S. Attorney and Federal Judge

Judge William Bostwick Sheppard was a U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Florida.39 He was born in Bristol, Fla., on Oct. 4, 1860, a few months after the arrival of the Pony Express on April 3 and two months prior to South Carolina’s secession from the Union on December 30. Judge Sheppard attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While far up north, in Springfield, Mass., James Naismith was busy inventing America’s beloved game of bas-ketball, Judge Sheppard read the law to enter the bar in 1891.

Judge Sheppard was a customs collector in Apalachicola, Fla., from 1889-1894 and from 1897-1901. He was in private practice in Apalachic-ola from 1891-1903, serving as mayor of the city in 1894. He then served as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida from 1903-1907.

On Sept. 4, 1907, Judge Sheppard received a recess appointment from President Theodore Roosevelt to the seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida vacated by Judge Swayne. Formally nominated to the same position by President Roosevelt on Dec. 3, 1907, Judge Sheppard was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on May 20, 1908 and received his commission the same day.

Judge Sheppard “died with his boots on,” while in judicial office, on April 21, 1934, at age 74. He had served for 27 years on the bench. In that year, Adolf Hitler became the “Fuhrer,” Mao Zedong began his long march northwards in China with 100,000 soldiers, and the federal Securities and Exchange Act was passed.

Hon. John Moses Cheney (1859-1922): Federal Judge and Civil Rights Lawyer

Judge John Moses Cheney was a Florida attorney and a short-term U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Florida.40 He was born on Jan. 6, 1859, in Milwaukee. Judge Cheney received a Bachelor of Laws in 1885 from the Boston University School of Law. Grover Cleveland was president at the time of his graduation.

Judge Cheney was in private practice in Orlando, Fla., from 1886-1906. He was the city attorney for Orlando from 1889-1890. He also served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida from 1906-1912. By 1910, Dade County’s population had risen to 11,933.41 Judge Cheney received a recess appointment from President William Howard Taft on Aug. 26, 1912, to the seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida vacated by Judge Locke. He was nominated to the same position by President Taft on Dec. 3, 1912. The Miami airport had opened in that same year. Judge Cheney’s service terminated on March 3, 1913, after he was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate (which never held a vote on his nomination).

Judge Cheney resumed private practice in Orlando from 1913-1922. A staunch Republican, Cheney later represented African American clients during the segregation era and supported voter registration drives during his U.S. Senate campaign in the era of white supremacy supported by the Democratic Party in Florida and across the South. Efforts to register African Americans resulted in the Ocoee massacre.42 Cheney died two years later, on June 2, 1922, at age 63, in Orlando.

Hon. Rhydon Mays Call (1858-1927): Circuit Court and U.S. District Judge

Judge Rhydon Mays Call was a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Florida.43 He was born on Jan. 13, 1858, in Fernandina Beach, Fla. In the year that Judge Call was born, the transatlantic cable was laid between the continents.

Judge Call received his Bachelor of Laws in 1878 from Washington and Lee University School of Law. Judge Call was in private practice in Jacksonville, Fla., from 1881-1893. He then sat as a judge of the Circuit Court of Florida for the Fourth Judicial Circuit for 20 years, from 1893-1913.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson was president, and the infamous Sixteenth Amendment was ratified, thus establishing an income tax in America. Judge Call received a recess appointment from President Woodrow Wilson on March 26, 1913, to the seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida vacated by Judge Cheney. He was nominated to the same position by President Wilson on April 12, 1913. He was confirmed and commissioned by the U.S. Senate on April 24, 1913.

The 1920 census for Dade County shows that the population had almost quadrupled in 10 years to 42,753.44 Meanwhile, aviator Charles Lindbergh had completed his first trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, and Babe Ruth belted out a then-record 60 home runs in one season for the New York Yankees. After a total of 34 years in black robes, Judge Call’s federal court service terminated on Dec. 15, 1927, upon his death at age 69.

Hon. Lake Jones (1867-1930): Attorney and Federal Jurist

Judge Lake Jones was an American lawyer and a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Florida.45 He was born in Vicksburg, Miss., on Feb. 10, 1867. During that year, Nebraska became a state, and the United States purchased the Territory of Alaska from the Russian Empire.46

Judge Jones was a clerk and inspector for the U.S. Post Office Department from 1885-1909 and then graduated from Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law with a Bachelor of Laws in 1909. William Howard Taft became president that year, and the NAACP was founded by W.E.B. Du Bois. Judge Jones was in private practice in Jacksonville from 1909-1921.

The Immigration Act of 1924 and the Indian Citizenship Act were passed in the same year that Judge Jones was nominated by President Calvin Coolidge to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, to a new seat authorized by 42 Stat. 837. He was confirmed by the Senate on Feb. 18, 1924, and received his commission the same day.

After just a half dozen years on the bench, his service terminated on June 7, 1930, upon his death at age 63 in Jacksonville. In 1930, Mickey Mouse, Birdseye frozen foods, Betty Boop, Scotch Tape, and Kentucky Fried Chicken entered the American scene.

Hon. Alexander Akerman (1869-1948): U.S. Attorney, Lawyer, District Judge

Judge Alexander Akerman was a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Florida.47 A few months after the first Transcontinental Railroad was completed on May 10 at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory, Judge Akerman was born on Oct. 9, 1869, in Elberton, Ga. The son of noted attorney Amos T. Akerman,48 he read law in 1892 and entered private practice in Cartersville, Ga., the same year.

In 1898, Judge Akerman was made a referee in bankruptcy (a position created by the Bankruptcy Act of 1898 and the predecessor of modern bankruptcy judges) for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia. He was then an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia from 1901-1912 and rose to the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia from 1912-1914.

World War I started, and Mother’s Day was established as a holiday in 1914. In that year, Judge Akerman relocated to Florida and was in private practice in Kissimmee from 1914-1920. In 1920,

Judge Akerman moved to Orlando and formed, with Judge Cheney (see discussion, supra), a new firm of lawyers. Today, that megafirm is known as Akerman LLP and is one of the largest law firms in Florida.

President Calvin Coolidge nominated Judge Akerman to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on Jan. 19, 1929, the year of the stock market crash, to a new seat created by 45 Stat. 1081. Confirmed by the Senate on Feb. 15, 1929, he received his federal commission the same day.

Judge Akerman assumed senior status on Oct. 8, 1939. He remained on the court until his death on Aug. 21, 1948, at age 79, after serving 19 years on the federal bench.

Hon. H. Lockwood Ritter (1868-1951): Impeached, Convicted, and Disgraced Jurist

Judge Halsted Lockwood Ritter was a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Florida.49 He is remembered, unfortunately for him, as the 13th individual to be impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives and just the fourth individual to be convicted and removed from federal office by the U.S. Senate.50

Judge Ritter was born in Indianapolis on July 14, 1868. At age 23, he earned a Bachelor of Philosophy degree; a year later, he had a Bachelor of Laws. In 1893, he secured his Artium Magister (today, an M.A.) in 1893. All of Judge Ritter’s degrees were granted by DePauw University.

Judge Ritter was busily engaged in the practice of law in the Crossroads of America from 1895-1895. His next stint in private practice came in Denver, where he stayed until 1925. In that year, he and his family moved southeast to West Palm Beach, Fla., due to his wife’s ill health. Ritter practiced there until 1929, the year in which the University of Miami was founded.

Ritter was nominated by President Calvin Coolidge on Jan. 23, 1929, to the seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida vacated by Judge Call. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Feb. 15, 1929, and received his commission the same day.

Judge Ritter’s service, however, was terminated early, not by death, but rather, on April 17, 1936, after a three-year legal saga, due to his impeachment, conviction, and ultimate removal from judicial office.

The House of Representatives, having considered the matter, impeached the judge (181 votes to 146) as to seven articles of impeachment, including (1) ordering the payment of “exorbitant” legal fees with intent to embezzle; (2) showing judicial favoritism in bankruptcy cases; (3) practicing law while a judge; (4) tax evasion; and (5) bringing the judiciary into disrepute.51

After an 11-day trial, the U.S. Senate voted to acquit the judge of all but one—the last article (see number (5), supra)—by a vote of 56 to 28.52 After his removal from office, Judge Ritter continued to practice law in Miami for about 15 years. He became ill and died on Oct. 15, 1951, at age 83 in Laurel, Miss.

The Federal Judicial Districts of Florida (1845-1940)

Throughout its history, much like the Sunshine State’s seacoast has been punctuated with majestic lighthouses, Florida’s legal landscape has been dotted with beautiful, historic federal courthouses. Hands down, the earliest-built federal courthouse building in Florida was the building used in St. Augustine for the Northern District court, which dated back to circa 1603. The District Court for the District of Florida sat in that locale from 1845-1847; the Circuit Court bench was there from 1862-1868; and the District Court presided there from 1847-1868.53

The federal courthouse for the Northern District of Florida was located in Pensacola from 1887-1939.54 The Circuit Court presided there, in “The City of Five Flags,” from 1887-1911.55

As for the Southern District court, it is noteworthy that the judge originally resided in Key West, not Miami.56 In the first place, the city of Miami did not exist until much later in time. The Miami area, then known as “Biscayne Bay Country,” did not become a city until 1896. As for Miami Beach, that area was not incorporated until even later, in 1915. Further, there were no “Spring Breakers” to speak of, inasmuch as there was no Fort Lauderdale (at least until 1911).

Originally, the federal court in Key West was housed in a building shared by the post office, custom house, and courthouse. There sat both the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida (1891-1932) and the U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of Florida (1891-1911).57

In Miami, there was a federal courthouse that stood only from 1914-1933. Hurricanes had ruined the structure, and it was the termites, not the jurists, that were effectively holding court. In 1933, the condemned building was replaced by the Dyer courthouse.

The federal courthouse in Jacksonville was constructed for the Southern District of Florida in 1895.58 The Circuit Court sat there until 1911, and the District Court was there until as late as 1933. Also built in 1895 was the Northern District federal courthouse in Tallahassee; it served as the home of the Circuit Court from 1895-1911 and for the District Court from 1895-1937.59 Over in Tampa, the courthouse was erected in 1905. The Circuit Court sat there until 1911; the District Court (for the Southern District for Florida) was in session there from 1904-1962.60 In Ocala, the Circuit Court sat in the courthouse from 1909-1911. In the same building sat the District Court (for the Southern District of Florida) from 1910-1956.61 In Gainesville, the federal court was built in 1911 for the Northern District of Florida.62 The Circuit Court sat there only in 1911. There had been a federal courthouse in Fernandina since 191263 (then part of the Southern District).64 In Fort Myers, the federal courthouse for the Southern District dated back to 1933.65 The Fort Pierce courthouse (which was in the Southern District at the time) was constructed in 1935.66

In 1928, a new Florida federal courthouse for the Northern District of Florida rose up in Mariana,67 the site of a Civil War battle.68 That edifice served the court, and the public, until 1977.

In 1922, a temporary judgeship was authorized for the Southern District, but it was never made permanent.69 Seven years later, in 1929, an additional judge was in fact authorized.70 Yet another judicial seat was created just one year later for the Southern District, where the population was growing by leaps and bounds.71

As for the federal judicial complement of the state at that time, by 1922, one judge was assigned to the Northern District and two to the Southern District. In 1929, the tally increased to one for the Northern District and three for the Southern District.72

In 1930, Eastern Airlines started flying its Miami to New York route. Two years later, in 1932, a new courthouse (now known as the Sidney M. Aronovitz U.S. Courthouse) was built in Key West. The building is located within the Key West Historic District and, as such, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.73

Epilogue

Thirty-one years later, in November 1963, some very special, and secret, flights were taking place high above certain areas not too far from Orlando. By 1965, many huge tracts of realty were being gobbled up in those same areas by oddly named dummy corporations. The Middle District of Florida would soon be destined to have a new star attraction, not with a courthouse, but rather Cinderella’s Castle, and would come to be known as the iconic Walt Disney World.

In roughly 140 years, Florida had gone from the Wetlands to “Wonderland,” and from the buccaneers of the Florida Straits to the “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Counting back a century, the population of (Miami-)Dade had risen meteorically from 83 souls back in 1860 to over 2.7 million people in 2019. The population continues to grow.

During the period from 1824-1940, 16 to 20 lawyers held seats on the federal courts established in and for, first, the territory and, later, the state of Florida. Most were not law-school educated; rather, they were trained in the art of jurisprudence by “reading the law.” Some were appointed as young as age 25, and some remained active on the bench for more than three or four decades.

These hardy individuals show us, through their impressive biographical sketches, that they evinced a common desire to serve their country and the public. They were politicians, legislators, soldiers, bureaucrats, and private practitioners who shared their (relatively) vast experience and scholarly inclinations with the litigants and counselors that appeared before them.

These intrepid young attorneys donned the black robes in what was then a sparsely populated southeastern portion of young America, a region that likely was home to more alligators and snakes than settlers. They were, each of them, dutifully engaged to what Justice Story would have called the “jealous mistress” of the law.74 To their credit, the vast majority of them served the public and their nation well, and with honor and distinction, paving the path for future generations of federal lawyers and jurists.

Naturally, the federal courts in Florida have grown along with the state and the populace and are, today, among some of the busiest halls of justice in the nation.75 This portends to be the wave of the future as well. And why not? Florida has an enviable climate, beautiful beaches, great outdoor activities, low taxes, and early-bird dinners. Eventually, many more people will come to Florida. That is a legal certainty. How do I know? My fellow Queens College alumnus and popular comedian Jerry Seinfeld said it best: “My parents didn’t want to move to Florida, but they turned 60 and that’s the law!”

Endnotes

1Univ. of S. Fla., Miami-Dade County, Florida, Exploring Florida, https://fcit.usf.edu/florida/docs/c/census/Miami-Dade. htm (last visited June 15, 2021) [hereinafter Miami-Dade County Census].

2From the Cherokee Nation’s point of view, their people suffered the “Great Death” from 1690-1740, when half the tribe died from the wars and diseases brought across the Atlantic by the Europeans. See Florida Tribe of Cherokee Indians, http://p10.hostingprod. com/@chaplaindavis.com/FLORIDA/history (last visited June 15, 2021).

3Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821 under President James Monroe, two years after the Adams-Onis Treaty (1819) between the United States and Spain.

4Legal scholars tend to agree that the common law—which derives its nomenclature from the fact that it was “common” to all of the king’s courts across Merry Old England—stemmed from the decisions, practices, and procedures of the courts of the English kings following William of Orange’s Norman Conquest in the year 1066.

5History of Florida Law, www.floridasupremecourt.org/About-the-Court/History-of-Florida-Law (last visited June 15, 2021).

6“Common law systems” are those that afford great weight to judicial precedent as well as to the type of reasoning utilized in England’s legal system.

7See Fla. Stat. § 2.01, which reads: “Common law and certain statutes declared in force. The common and statute laws of England which are of a general and not a local nature, with the exception hereinafter mentioned, down to the 4th day of July 1776, are declared to be of force in this state; provided, the said statutes and common law be not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States and the acts of the Legislature of this state.”

8Stemming from the annexation of the Republic of Texas by the United States, the Mexican-American War was waged between 1846 and 1848.

9See, generally, M.C. Mirow, Spanish Courts, in Florida’s Other Courts: Unconventional Justice in the Sunshine State 9, 27 (Robert M. Jarvis, ed., Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida, 2018).

10Also known as Old Glory, the Red, White, and Blue, and The Star-Spangled Banner.

11The “Stars and Bars” flag of the Confederate States of America was adopted on March 4, 1861, and used until 1863. The more recognizable “Stainless Banner” was utilized from 1863-1865.

12General Robert E. Lee surrendered on Apr. 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

13Am. Ins. Co. v. 356 Bales of Cotton, 26 U.S. 511 (1828).

14United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. (15 Pet.) 518 (1841).

1528 Cong. Ch 75, 28th Cong. (1845).

16A writ of error is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as “[a] writ issued by an appellate court directing a lower court to deliver the record in the case for review.” Writ of Error, Black’s Law Dictionary 1749 (9th ed. 2009).

1729 Cong. Ch. 20, 29th Cong. (1847).

18Id.

19Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/bronson-isaac-hopkins (last visited June 15, 2021).

20Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, https://bioguideretro.congress.gov/Home/SearchResults (last visited June 15, 2021).

21Before law schools were firmly established in this country, “reading law” was the method by which students of the law could gain admittance to legal profession. In short, they joined the legal profession by virtue of their satisfactory apprenticeship under the tutelage and mentorship of an older and, presumably, more experienced lawyer. A small number of states in the United States still allow this method. See Corey Adwar, There’s a Way to Become An Attorney Without Setting Foot in Law School, Insider (July 30, 2014), https://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-become-an-attorney-without-law-school-2014-7.

22Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/marvin-william (last visited June 15, 2021).

23Id.

24Every February, there is an historical reenactment of the battle in Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, which is nestled inside of the Osceola National Forest.

25Proclamation No. 47, 13 Stat. 771 ( July 13, 1865).

26William Marvin A Treatise on the Law of Wreck and Salvage (Boston, Little, Brown and Company 1858).

27Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/mcintosh-mcqueen (last visited June 15, 2021).

28Miami-Dade County Census, supra note 1.

29Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/fraser-philip (last visited June 15, 2021).

30Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/boynton-thomas-jefferson (last visited June 15, 2021).

31The debates were mainly concerned with the extension of slavery into the various U.S. territories.

32Miami-Dade County Census, supra note 1.

33Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/mckinney-john (last visited June 15, 2021).

34See Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 408 (1857), a landmark decision of the Supreme Court in which the Court held that the U.S. Constitution was not meant to include American citizenship for Black people (whether they were slaves or freemen) and, thus, the rights and privileges of the Constitution did not apply to them.

35Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/locke-james-william (last visited June 15, 2021).

36In the early 19th century, U.S. commissioners performed judicial functions analogous to the duties of a local magistrate or justice of the peace for the various states.

37Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/settle-thomas (last visited June 15, 2021).

38Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/swayne-charle (last visited June 15, 2021).

39Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/sheppard-william-bostwick (last visited June 15, 2021)

40Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/cheney-john-moses (last visited June 15, 2021)

41Miami-Dade County Census, supra note 1.

42Carlee Hoffmann & Claire Strom, A Perfect Storm: The Ocoee Riot of 1920, 93-1 Fla. Historical Quarterly 37 (2014).

43Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/call-rhydon-mays (last visited June 15, 2021).

44Miami-Dade County Census, supra note 1.

45Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/jones-lake (last visited June 15, 2021).

46The colossal 586,412 square miles purchased by virtue of “Seward’s Folly” only cost the U.S. $7.2 million dollars, or just two cents per acre.

47Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/akerman-alexander (last visited June 15, 2021).

48Amos Tappan Akerman (1820-1881) served as attorney general under President Grant. He was the only Confederate official to rise to the rank of a cabinet member during Reconstruction and, later, became well-known for prosecuting many members of the Ku Klux Klan.

49Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/judges/ritter-halsted-lockwood (last visited June 15, 2021).

50See generally Emily Field Van Tassel, Why Judges Resign: Influences on Federal Judicial Service, 1789 to 1992, Federal Judicial Center (1993), https://www.fjc.gov/sites/default/files/2012/ judgeres.pdf

51Deschler’s Precedents, Impeachment of Judge Ritter, Ch. 14, § 18 (2013), https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-HPREC-DESCHLERS-V3/pdf/GPO-HPREC-DESCHLERS-V3-5-5-5.pdf

52The Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate for a conviction in a case of impeachment.

53Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/ courthouse/saint-augustine-florida-ca.-1603 (last visited June 17, 2021).

54Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/ courthouses/descriptions?page=2 (last visited June 17, 2021).

55Id.

5612 Stat. 576.

57Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/ courthouse/key-west-florida-189 (last visited June 17, 2021).

58Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/ courthouse/jacksonville-florida-1895 (last visited June 17, 2021).

59Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/ courthouse/tallahassee-florida-1895 (last visited June 17, 2021).

60Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/ courthouse/tampa-florida-1905 (last visited June 17, 2021).

61Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/ courthouses/descriptions?page=2 (last visited June 17, 2021).

62Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/ courthouse/gainesville-florida-1911 (last visited June 17, 2021).

63Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/ courthouse/fernandina-florida-1912 (last visited June 17, 2021).

64In 1962, it became a courthouse in the Middle District of Florida.

65Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/ courthouse/fort-myers-florida-1933 (last visited June 17, 2021).

66Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/ courthouse/fort-pierce-florida-1935 (last visited June 17, 2021).

67Mariana is located northwest of Tallahassee and northeast of Panama City near Interstate 10. It is one of the oldest towns in the state and the seat of Jackson County. During the Blue-Gray skirmish, 150 elderly men and young boys successfully defended the town against 900 Union soldiers.

68Federal Judicial Center, https://www.fjc.gov/history/ courthouse/marianna-florida-1928 (last visited June 17, 2021).

6967 Cong. Ch. 306, 67th Cong. (1922).

7070 Cong. Ch. 72, 70th Cong. (1929).

7171 Cong. Ch. 635, 71st Cong. (1930).

72The Middle District of Florida was established much later. By the 1960s, the judicial caseload had skyrocketed in Florida. The Middle District of Florida was created by Congress on July 30, 1962. The new district was manned by the transfer of a trio of judges from the Southern District. S. Res. 1824, 87th Cong. (1962). Historically, the Middle District’s Courthouse was located in Tampa. It was housed in the U.S. Post Office building built in 1905; it continued to serve as a post office and customs house until 1931. See U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, The Creation of the Middle District of Florida, www.flmd.uscourts.gov/ the-creation-of-the-middle-district-of-florida (last visited June 17, 2021). The building that is located at 601 North Florida Avenue today is owned by the city of Tampa.

73U.S. General Services Administration, U.S. Post Office, Courthouse, and Custom House, Key West, FL, gsa.gov/ historic-buildings/us-post-office-courthouse-and-custom-house-key-west-fl (last visited June 17, 2021).

74“I will not say with Lord Hale, that ‘the law will admit of no rival, and nothing to go even with it;’ but I will say, that it is a jealous mistress, and requires a long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favours, but by a lavish homage.” Joseph Story, A Discourse Pronounced upon the Inauguration of the Author, as Dane Professor of Law in Harvard University on the Twenty-fifth Day of August, 1829 at 29 (HardPress 2018).

75In 2014, 11,441 new cases were filed in the Southern District of Florida and 2,252 cases were filed in the Northern District. Ballotpedia, https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_District_ Court_for_the_Southern_District_of_Florida (last visited June 17, 2021); Ballotpedia, https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_ District_Court_for_the_Middle_District_of_Florida (last visited June 17, 2021); Ballotpedia, https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_District_Court_for_the_Northern_District_of_Florida (last visited June 17, 2021).

 

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