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Nearly 1,400 pack Phillips Center for Poucher Lecture featuring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

Poucher Lecture

From left, former ABA President Martha Barnett (JD 73), retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince and 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Rosemary Barkett (JD 70) discuss separating the judicial branch from electoral politics during the inaugural Allen L. Poucher Lecture at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 12. The Poucher lecture series is hosted by the Florida Law Review. (Photo by Nicole Safker)

By Richard Goldstein
Associate Director of Communications

UF Levin College of Law's Florida Law Review brought a quartet of the legal profession's heavy hitters together at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts where they blasted the practice of using elections in Florida and other states to choose and retain judges.

Nearly 1,400 people packed the Phillips Center to see retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and three other distinguished members of the legal community for the inaugural Allen L. Poucher Lecture Series.

"No other nation in the world elects its judges. That's a novel proposition,'' O'Connor said. "When I tell people in other countries about it they're appropriately shocked.''

Joining Justice O'Connor in the panel discussion for the Poucher lecture were former ABA President Martha Barnett (JD 73), who served as the moderator, Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince and U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Rosemary Barkett (JD 70).

The problem with electing judges, said the panelists, is that it undermines the judiciary as an independent branch of the government and it compromises impartiality.

O'Connor noted that most campaign contributors are the lawyers and interest groups who will appear before the judges as advocates or parties to a legal case.

"Huge amounts of money are going to judicial campaigns, which is why we shouldn't have that system," she said. "Campaign contributions have effects on judicial decisions. Even judges say this."

"If you have a chance in Florida, get rid of popular election," O'Connor added.

Quince, the first black woman to sit on the state Supreme Court and a former chief justice, said it's up to people in the audience to protect the system's integrity.

"It takes your voice to make sure we have a fair and impartial judiciary," she said.

Barkett, now a federal circuit court judge and a former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, described her frustration with the inability of people to back up opinions with facts. She said people tell her they disagree with her but can't say about what. Barkett blamed the emotion-based rhetoric of today's political debate.

"Reach a conclusion on your own that makes sense to you," Barkett advised the audience. "Protect the kind of democracy that we have been living under for all of these years."

O'Connor offered several examples of what she considers the woeful civic ignorance of Americans.

"Three out of four people in the U.S., according to recent polls, can name at least one of the three stooges," O'Connor said. "Two-thirds of Americans cannot even name the three branches of government."

O'Connor is working to change this state of affairs by sponsoring a website, www.icivics.org, that uses games to teach young people about executive, legal, legislative, local government and budgetary decision making.

O'Connor became the first female to serve on the Supreme Court after President Ronald Reagan nominated her as associate justice in 1981 and she retired in 2006. During her tenure, O'Connor became a key swing vote, balancing conservative and liberal factions on the high court. Where O'Connor came down on issues often determined law and she came to be known as the most powerful woman in the United States.

UF Law Dean Robert Jerry noted that by kicking off the lecture series with Justice O'Connor, the series instantly earned the credibility to attract high-octane speakers in the future.

Law Review staff brought the panel together using the endowment provided by Betty Poucher, Elizabeth Poucher Reynolds and Allen L. Poucher Jr., which was donated in memory of Allen L. Poucher Sr. All of the panelists appeared without honorarium so the endowment was used to pay expenses and activities surrounding their visit.

"We were pleased to do something in Allen's memory," Betty Poucher, the widow of Allen L. Poucher Sr., said after the panel discussion. "We couldn't have done better. Those ladies were hot. She said they were a bunch of rock stars and I agree."

Allen L. Poucher Sr. was a 1942 graduate of UF Law where he was active in Florida Blue Key, the Debate Team, and on the staff of The Alligator. Poucher practiced law for more than 60 years in Jacksonville with the law firm of R.P. Daniel and later joined Knight, Kincaid, Poucher and Harris.

The Poucher Legal Education Series provides a venue for prominent legal, political and business leaders to discuss important issues facing the nation and world.

Paul Pakidis (3L), editor-in-chief of Florida Law Review, planned the event with executive editors Selden Ross and Jon Mann as well as Florida Law Review adviser and UF Law professor Dennis Calfee. Pakidis thanked the entire law review staff, which he said helped with everything from publicity to ushering to parking in the midst of a busy fall schedule. Pakidis also credited the law school's administrators for their support.

Pakidis said he was pleased with the results of all the effort.

"We had a fantastic turnout in the Phillips Center, which I'm very proud of." Pakidis said. "I'm thankful that everything ran so smoothly according to plan."

The turnout may have been the highest ever for a law-school related event. Professors emeritus Joseph Little and Fletcher Baldwin, both of whom have been on the faculty since the 1960s, couldn't recall a larger turnout for a UF Law-sponsored event.

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Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's visit Sept. 12 wasn't the only recent event she has participated in that had a connection to UF Law. In August, Dean Emeritus and CGR Director Jon Mills moderated a panel at the American Bar Association's Annual Meeting in Toronto where O'Connor was a participant.

The topic of the discussion was the current crisis in judicial funding. The panelists discussed the problems contributing to insufficient court funding and how to address the issue. Mills stressed the fact that because of underfunding, justice is delayed for many, which equates to justice being denied for many.

"There was a headline the other day: 'Liberty and justice for some,'" Mills said. "That is not a headline we want to see again."

The panel was also comprised of Mary McQueen, president of the National Center for State Courts; David Boies and Theodore B. Olson, co-chairs of the Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System; and Rod Snow, president of the Canadian Bar Association. The recap of the discussion can be found on the ABA website. And the complete discussion is archived in two parts, here and here.