Court News - 2017
Justice James E. C. Perry Retires from the Supreme Court
By Beth C. Schwartz
James E. C. Perry, a native of New Bern, North Carolina, was appointed as the eighty-fifth justice to the Florida Supreme Court by Governor Charlie Crist and took office on March 11, 2009. Prior to sitting on the supreme court bench, he served as a circuit judge in Florida’s Eighteenth Judicial Circuit, appointed by Governor Jeb Bush in March 2000; he was the first African-American appointed to the Eighteenth Circuit and was its chief judge from 2003 – 2005.
The Florida Constitution sets the mandatory retirement age for state judges and justices at 70 years old, the exact date depending on when their seventieth birthday occurs. Justice Perry reached what is jocularly referred to as “constitutional senility” in 2014. Because his birthday fell in the second half of his six-year term, he was able to remain on the bench until his term expired. He retired from the supreme court bench on December 30, 2016. (For biographical information about Justice Perry, please follow this link.)
Nearly eight years have passed since Justice Perry joined the supreme court. Of the court’s seven justices, he was the last one appointed, so it has been a while since anyone would have had reason to ponder over the kinds of personal qualities that might ease a newly-appointed justice’s transition to the supreme court bench. Justice Perry’s imminent retirement presented an opportunity to seek his unique perspective on this matter.
When asked what advice he might impart to a new supreme court appointment, Justice Perry’s first response was an eloquent silence. Then, after a deep chuckle, he declared, “The problem is that this is unlike any other experience; you can’t really prepare to do this—there’s really no preparation. What advice would I give a new supreme court justice? I don’t have a clue!” But after a brief interval, he offered the following: “Just be honest, have integrity, have a sense of purpose, fairness, and justice. And remember that you’re dealing with issues that affect everyday life”—a point that he quickly clarified: “Sometimes we can lose sight of the fact that this is not just an academic pursuit, where you go through legal gymnastics and come to a conclusion. You need to determine how your decisions are going to impact the average man and woman walking around on the street.”
Another expressive pause followed. But it soon gave way to a bustling, wide-ranging exchange, during which Justice Perry segued seamlessly from stories about some of his most memorable public school teachers and what they taught him, to his recipe for writing clear, meaningful opinions. During the course of this conversational journey, the justice offered a bounty of aphorisms and common sense advice from which any aspiring or newly-appointed jurist—surely, any human being—might learn a useful thing or two. Broadly speaking, his insights fell into four overlapping areas: the need to recognize and respect everyone’s humanity; the importance of feeling comfortable in your own skin; the wisdom of fostering collegiality; and the responsibility to communicate plainly and comprehensibly.
Clearly, Justice Perry thinks deeply about “the average man and woman walking around on the street” (he admitted that, before he makes a final decision, one of the questions he asks himself is, “Does this make walking-around sense”?). For he recognizes that, at heart, “We are all human beings. We have a sense of humor. We have pain. We have suffering….” This appreciation of the humanity in everyone probably explains why he believes it’s “important for judges to go out and speak to the community.” He sees these occasions as opportunities to connect with people and help them understand something about the justice system: “For people have no idea what we do and how important it is. And they are always interested in hearing a judge speak.” He gets asked to speak at a great many events, and “rather than preparing a speech that the audience might not be interested in,” he invites people to ask him questions—“That becomes my whole presentation. For they have a lot of questions,” he exclaimed. He also pointedly avoids using his title when he introduces himself: “I purposefully don’t walk into a room and say, ‘I’m Justice Perry.’ I say, ‘I’m Jim Perry.’” He knows that his title—which reflects “what I do, not who I am”—is likely to “build a wall between us”; when he presents himself by name rather than title, he hopes to “tear this wall down.” He noted that the average person does not understand how the courts operate; and, historically, people have had doubts about the efficiency, fairness, and accessibility of the court system. Thus “It doesn’t bode well for judges to be so mysterious, so unapproachable.” He wants people to see that “Judges are human beings like everyone else. The air here is not any more rarefied than the air anyone else breathes.” And again he distinguished between what he does and who he is: “Take seriously what you do, but not who you are. I try not to take myself too seriously,” he added with a chuckle.
When asked to talk a bit about “who he is,” Justice Perry responded, “I’m happy. I’m at peace with myself. I don’t talk down to anybody. I don’t talk up to anybody. I’m not trying to impress anybody.” Governor Charlie Crist said that this unassuming manner “really struck” him when the aspiring justice visited the governor’s office to be interviewed for the supreme court vacancy. The governor described his office as being “big and imposing,” so, upon welcoming his guest, the governor invited him to “Please be comfortable”—to which Justice Perry is said to have responded, “I am the most comfortable man you’re ever going to meet. I just do what’s right, so I’m never going to be uncomfortable.” Justice Perry’s disposition to “be at peace” and to “be comfortable” is palpable to anyone who spends any time with him, and it is a quality from which most people would benefit, especially judges. For, “In this line of work, people often disagree with or disapprove of you,” he warned, “so it’s very important that you don’t disapprove of yourself; you have to be comfortable in your own skin to be comfortable with the criticism.” He also stressed that “Being a judge is not a popularity contest. And it shouldn’t be. You need to be satisfied with who you are.”
This might be especially true of a supreme court justice, because the seven of them must learn to work efficiently and effectively together as a unit. Speaking of his colleagues, he said, “My story is different from anybody else’s. My decisions were honed and influenced by my experiences; they are ‘baked in,’ part of the water the fish swims in. We all have different stories.” But, even so, “You can learn to disagree in an agreeable manner. And that’s what collegiality is really all about,” he emphasized. “The bottom line is that we are all human beings; we have families, children, health issues….” He recognizes that “Maybe we won’t change each other’s minds. But we can respect each other’s opinions. And like each other as people.” When asked what he does to help achieve this level of respect and amity, he says, quite simply, “We go to lunch: when you go to lunch, you get to know someone. And then you can see why they think the way they do. And they can see why you think the way you do.” Lunching together is surely a good strategy for building collegiality. Indeed, he shares his warm collegiality with all the people who work in the supreme court building, speaking kindly with everyone he passes in its halls: “We’re all in the human family,” he remarked: “We have different jobs, different lives. But it takes a village to raise this democracy we have.” Ultimately, he sees everyone as working together, doing his or her part to “make things better.”
One of the topics to which Justice Perry circled back the most was communication—specifically, the importance of communicating clearly and understandably. Regardless of who he’s talking to, or who he’s writing for, he said, “I don’t try to razzle dazzle people with esoteric language. The goal is to communicate. It would be like me speaking to you in French when you don’t understand French. What’s the point? The whole purpose of communication is to get people to understand what you’re saying.” This is no less true when he writes opinions: “With all my opinions, in the first 70 words, you understand the pertinent facts, the pros and cons, and the conclusion—in plain, clear language, so that if you don’t want to read any further, you know where I’m going. The whole reason for writing opinions is to communicate to the judge and the public. They have a right to know without having to read through 120 pages!”
Given his dedication to the responsible and straightforward expression and interchange of thoughts and ideas, it should come as no surprise that Justice Perry’s favorite subject in high school was English (especially grammar: he laughed softly upon recalling that one of his teachers spent six weeks on the verb “to be,” and after mentioning that he particularly loved learning how to diagram sentences in fifth grade, he proceeded to diagram a quite complex one in the air with his finger!). He attributed his passion for strong, unambiguous communication to his having had exceptionally good teachers as a child and young man, noting that “one of the unintended consequences of segregation” was that many African-Americans with masters degrees and even doctorates, because they had limited job opportunities, ended up teaching in the public schools that served minority students.
As the interview wound down, Justice Perry became pensive about the chance-driven journey that led him, against so many odds, to the bench of the Florida Supreme Court: “I always wanted to make a difference. I had a plan to make things better for the generations that follow me. But I had no idea how to go about doing it. And I still don’t understand how it happened. But I’m just thankful that it did.”