There was always something special about Harry Lee Anstead (JD 63). Born and raised in a single-parent home in a Jacksonville housing project, he helped support his mother, Loretta Anstead, after his father abandoned the family.
While other boys were out playing baseball in the streets or fishing in the St. John’s River, Anstead was mowing lawns, moving furniture and working odd jobs to help his mother make ends meet. Yet he still gives all the credit to her.
“My mother is my personal hero,” he says. “It was a tribute to her tenacity that she did anything to support and keep us together, and managed to get us a unit in the Brentwood project, which at the time was much sought after due to its nearby schools and parks.”
To those who knew the young Anstead, it was no surprise he far surpassed normal expectations of a young man from the projects — excelling as an undergraduate at the University of Florida after graduating from Jacksonville’s Andrew Jackson High School in 1956, then going on to earn his juris doctor degree from UF’s College of Law.
“I have a tremendous admiration for our public universities, and in particular the University of Florida — the flagship of our state university system,” he says. “It provided me with a wonderful experience, a combination of the wonderful campus environment created by teachers, the administration and the student body composed of people from many other places that I got to know.
Four decades later, Anstead, 64, is still surpassing expectations. On July 2, he was sworn in as chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court — the highest judicial office in Florida state government.
But the UF alumnus hasn’t forgotten where he came from nor a childhood surrounded by other children who slipped through the cracks.
“I’m particularly pleased that the courts have the enormous privilege of looking out for our most troubled children, who come to us in juvenile courts,” says Anstead. “I feel privileged that society has chosen our doorstep to put those children on, and I am absolutely committed to providing the finest services to help them resolve their problems at a very early age to get them headed in the right direction to be constructive citizens. That is a major issue on my agenda.”
Also critical to Anstead is professionalism in the courts.
“After I came on the court, we initiated a statewide professionalism initiative among lawyers, judges and law schools,” he says.
“My feeling was that we had made a mistake in not previously bringing leadership of the law schools, lawyers and judges together to accept responsibility for raising the level of professional conduct.
“On our initiative, a Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism was created through The Florida Bar, and we have been able to develop statewide and local programs in an educational format that keeps students, teachers, lawyers and judges aware of emerging professionalism and ethical issues.”
Anstead’s emphasis on professionalism goes hand-in-hand with another issue he champions.
“From the moment a lawyer is appointed to be a judge, we mandate judicial education for that lawyer before the lawyer goes on the bench,” he says. “So that lawyer receives practical and academic education as a judge. We are now recognized as having the finest judicial education system in the country.”
Anstead notes Florida also is recognized by group after group, including the federal government and United States attorney general, for innovative ideas like drug courts.
“And we’ve been recognized throughout the country for our mediation,” he says. “Our state court system is recognized nationally as one of the — if not the — finest systems in the United States.”
As chief justice, Anstead intends to keep it that way.
“I’m bragging about the state of the justice system in Florida, but I’m very, very concerned that we maintain it,” he says.
Anstead’s passion is now the law and what it means to the people of Florida. But a career in law wasn’t always the future he planned. In fact, he spent his first two years as a Gator undergrad as an engineering major.
“Because I was a good high school science and math student, and because the space program was just beginning, my teachers encouraged me to go into engineering,” he says. “I did pretty well initially, but somewhere along the way, a teacher in a particularly advanced course found I didn’t measure up to a particular standard. Staying up all night working on a single physics problem was not something I was enjoying. I knew this really wasn’t for me.”
“I began thinking about my love for the humanities and history and government and changed my major, with teachers and counselors encouraging me to follow my heart,” Anstead says.
He followed his heart all the way through UF, working odd jobs to pay for his education, including a recurring summer position as an electrical engineering draftsman at a major engineering firm in Jacksonville.
At UF, Anstead participated in another Gator tradition — triumph on the athletic field.
“Athletics and sports were a big part of my life growing up in the projects, because there were nearby playing fields,” he says. “I was kind of a latchkey kid, but I always loved sports. One of the most exciting things for me was to compete on an intercollegiate level wearing the orange and blue and running cross country at UF. I was not one of the high-performance runners, but competing was quite a thrill.”
Anstead had a brief stint freshman year as a walk-on with the Gator football team.
“I was just too slow, too small and lacking in talent, but it was exciting while it lasted,” he says. “As a walk-on, you scrimmage the varsity players, and you get beat up in the process. I saw there was no future in it for me. Much later, my children wanted to know why I didn’t at least have a lot of pictures taken in my uniform.”
After he completed his undergraduate education, Anstead was recruited by the National Security Agency, unofficially kicking off his judiciary career.
“I was with the agency stationed in Washington, and attended the inauguration of John Kennedy in January 1961 and was deeply moved,” he said. “I felt like Kennedy was looking right at me when he said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’ I’ll tell you, I was charged up. I started law school at American University just a few weeks later.”
But Anstead, a true Gator, didn’t stick around American University long.
“My heart was always back in Florida, back at the University of Florida,” he says. “Eventually I transferred and received my law degree from UF.
“I think UF prepared me for this career because of the faculty’s tremendous caring and dedication,” he says.
“Those running the school obviously believed students should always come first.”
Anstead went on to earn a Master of Laws degree in the judicial process at the University of Virginia, then spent 13 years as a trial and appellate attorney before being appointed to the bench in Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal in 1977. In 1994, then-Governor Lawton Chiles appointed him to the Florida Supreme Court.
Anstead and his wife Sue, first met on the law library steps when he was a law student and she was an undergraduate. She is now an attorney and former child advocate for the Legal Aid Society, and the two make their home in Tallahassee. They have five children – Chris, Jim, Laura, Amy and Michael – and one grandchild, Ashlee Marie.
To other Florida attorneys, especially fellow UF alumni, Anstead issues a challenge as he tries to lead the Florida court system to an even higher level.
“We need to remind ourselves every day that we are officers of the court and we carry the Florida justice system on our shoulders. It’s only when we’re operating at our very best that the system is operating at its very best,” he says. “We’re only as strong as the weakest link in our chain.”