Growing up in the coal-mining town of
Beckley, West Virginia, where he excelled in sports,
R. Fred Lewis, J.D. ’72, never dreamed that on
June 30, 2006 he would become the 52nd chief justice
of the Florida Supreme Court. He keeps a jar of coal
on his desk to remind him of his roots.
“My grandfather and all the uncles
were coal miners,” Lewis says, noting that his
father, now 96, worked at a “tipple,” an
aboveground facility for sorting coal.
“I thought I was going to be one
of those youngsters from the woods who makes it as
a professional baseball player,” says Lewis,
who played baseball and basketball at Florida Southern
College (FSC) in Lakeland, Florida, on a basketball
scholarship and who spent his college summers working
with kids at his hometown YMCA. His performance at
FSC earned him an NCAA postgraduate scholarship, which
named him one of the nation’s top 15 scholar-athletes.
Then he got the itch to try law school.
“Back in West Virginia, in the
community, folks would say, ‘If you have a problem,
go see lawyer so and so. He can help you.’ I
thought, ‘Hey, that would be a good thing to
try,’ so I gave it an effort,” Lewis recalls.
The UM School of Law was where Lewis
met his future mentor, the late Edward Perse, J.D. ’61. “I
started clerking for him, and it’s just one of
those wonderful experiences where by happenstance,
you meet one of the finest people who ever walked the
Earth.” Perse, an appellate lawyer, introduced
Lewis to Larry Kuvin, J.D. ’58. Lewis practiced
civil trial and appellate law with Kuvin in Miami until
he became a justice on the Florida Supreme Court, appointed
in 1998 by the late Governor Lawton Chiles.
Married since 1969, Lewis and his wife,
Judith, have two daughters. Elle, a former Florida
USTA tennis champion, is a civil engineer in Texas.
Their younger daughter, Lindsay, 21, who lives with
her parents in Tallahassee, suffers from lactic acidosis,
an incurable mitochondrial syndrome that attacks the
central nervous system and has left her hearing and
sight impaired. “She’s a gift from God,” Lewis
adds, noting that doctors did not expect her to survive
beyond the age of 6.
During his years of private practice,
Lewis often volunteered his time and knowledge counseling
families of other special-needs children. He also provided
countless hours of pro bono legal services to cancer
patients. Lewis says these involvements convinced him
that he “became a lawyer for the right reasons.”
A former longtime member of the Board
of Directors of Miami Children’s Hospital, Lewis
now volunteers with the Florida Law Related Education
Program, which offers teachers and students insight
into government institutions and fosters access between
the public and judicial officers.
As chief justice, Lewis is committed
to ensuring that Florida’s court system remain
open in the wake of natural disasters, pandemics, transportation
interruptions, and other threats. He also wants Florida’s
courts to implement technology “in a good and
open way that recognizes and protects the constitutional
liberties and the privacy of the citizens of Florida,” and
he wants to see better court access for the elderly
and the disabled.