It was the climax of West Palm Beach lawyer Marshall Criser’s year as president of The Florida Bar. The annual convention bids adieu to the old president and inaugurates the new one. Outgoing Bar President Criser (JD 51) would be replaced by fellow Gator and President-elect Mark Hulsey Jr. (JD 48). Criser had four children, two on the way, and his wife, Paula. But at the May 1969 convention, the 40-year-old occupied the presidential suite of Hollywood, Fla.’s, Diplomat Hotel all by himself.
Two years before, Criser had lost a bid to become The Florida Bar president in a race against Gator William Simmons (JD 34), a retired Army general. Then he was elevated in an uncontested election.
Criser described the campaigning in an oral history interview with UF historian Samuel Proctor: “A contested race run all over Florida,” Criser said. “There were 10,500 lawyers in Florida and I would practice law until three o’clock in the afternoon, get in my car and drive to Bradenton, give a talk to the Bradenton Bar Association. After, they had a cocktail party for one hour or a cocktail party and a big dinner for one and one half hours and all they wanted to do was go to sleep or go home. But I would have to drive back that night to practice law the next day.”
Looking back, Criser figures the routine was a bit much, and he was not at the optimum stage in life to pursue leadership in the bar.
“I couldn’t afford to be president of The Florida Bar and spending a large percentage of my time running around the state of Florida when I’m still trying to make a living and take care of a wife and six children,” Criser told UF LAW magazine in an interview in his University of Florida Foundation office.
With 93,000 lawyers in 2012, today only California’s bar is larger. Gator lawyers are still making sacrifices to run the organization, whose duties include lawyer discipline, continuing legal education, judicial procedural proposals and prosecuting the unlicensed practice of law. And Gators still dominate its commanding heights.
By 2013, when Eugene Pettis (JD 85) is elevated to president, UF Law alumni will have held the presidency for four, one-year terms in a row and five of the last six terms. UF Law graduates have accounted for more than half the organization’s presidents since 1950, the year after the state Supreme Court ordered that bar membership was obligatory for all of Florida’s practicing lawyers. Even the 32-year executive director of the bar, John F. Harkness (JD 69), is a UF Law alumnus.
So it’s no surprise that despite a bar headquarters in Tallahassee, Gator is spoken fluently in this Seminole heartland.
“Go Gators!” was the cry heard outside the hospital room of Mayanne Downs (JD 87) as she lay in a coma in March 2007. Someone had called for a prayer during a vigil outside her hospital room and the result was the school cheer. After 11 days in a coma during March (basketball) Madness her first words
upon waking from the coma were, “Did the Gators win?”
“The good news about almost dying is people will let you do all sorts of things, like be president of The Florida Bar. Of course, a very small price to pay in the end,” said Downs, now fully recovered from a blood infection.
Quips like that show why Downs is known as someone who walks into tense situations and breaks the ice with her quick wit. The longtime Orlando city attorney just named to a top post at GrayRobinson put her political and interpersonal skills to good use during her 2010-2011 year as The Florida Bar president. It turned out to be one of the more turbulent in recent history. Downs faced a legislative initiative by fellow Gator and member of the bar, House Speaker Dean Cannon (JD 92), to change the
structure of the judiciary. Cannon proposed a constitutional amendment that would have expanded the Supreme Court from seven to 10 members and divided criminal and civil jurisdiction between two sets of justices.
The bar put defeating that proposal at the top of its legislative agenda.
“It was a time of great personal stress because some of the controversy ended up getting centered on me personally,” Downs said.
Downs paraphrased her critics as saying, “‘She’s supposed to do more.’ ‘She should
be doing things differently.’ ‘She should take different positions.’”
The constitutional proposals died in the Legislature, and Downs notes that the Legislature protected the judiciary from budget cuts in a year when the state budget declined. Florida Bar President Scott Hawkins (JD 83) also notes that judicial pensions were not touched, and the Legislature authorized state agencies to fund bar dues for government attorneys.
Downs, a double Gator, credited her connection to Gator graduates with her ability to work through these thorny issues.
“There were a lot of Florida Blue Keyers in the middle of a lot of that stuff,” Downs said of the selective honor society that perennially counts a healthy share of UF Law students among its members.
“There’s just something about being a member of the Gator Nation and it lasts longer. It’s a deeper
Gwynne Young (JD 74), who takes over as bar president in July, experienced this bond in two contested bar races. The Tampa lawyer fought for her seat on the Board of Governors nine years ago and did the same during her run for president last year.
As an emeritus member of the UF Law Board of Trustees, Young was especially well connected. The Tampa-based partner at Carlton Fields who specializes in business litigation crisscrossed the state campaigning for the job.
“My friends on the Law Center Association Board offered to take me through their law firms, host me at events to introduce me to people, wrote letters and emails to their contacts,” Young said. “I don’t think
there’s any question that the Gator network helped a lot. All three candidates had access to that network, but to the extent that I got out there, I met people — they were willing to help.”
Key responsibilities of the bar such as disciplining lawyers and prosecuting the unlicensed practice of law are governmental functions under supervision of the Supreme Court. Much of the work is performed by bar staff and is paid for by The Florida Bar’s $43 million budget, fi nanced largely by member dues. Harkness notes that the work is also performed through thousands of volunteer hours donated each year to bar activities by the president, president-elect, the 52-member Board of Governors and other contributing bar members.
Young estimates that she now spends half her time doing work for the bar as president elect
(the president and president-elect receive a traveling stipend from the bar).
“They take that extra time and effort because all our board members pay their own way,” Harkness said. “Plus it’s time out of their offi ces not only traveling to the six meetings. The amount of time they’re in their office doing local bar work for The Florida Bar is substantial, particularly in the grievances areas because they all have responsibilities locally for grievance matters.”
MRS. CRISER ARRIVES
The 1969 bar convention featured panels and speeches about the prospects for nuclear détente with the Soviet Union and peace in the Middle East. An especially hot topic was dealing with the protests sweeping college campuses, and Criser would soon find himself in the midst of these when he was appointed to the state Board of Regents. As a member of the universities’ governing body, Criser said he and other regents sometimes required security to enter and leave public meetings on campuses.
This year, 35 percent of bar members are women. A tiny minority were members in 1969. So few that The Florida Bar Journal could report that 600 wives showed up for the bar convention with their lawyer husbands and were treated to a reception by the pool on Thursday afternoon followed by a luau on
But the bar’s First Lady was absent from the festivities. Paula Criser, a former national photographic and fashion model who attended University of Florida before leaving school to marry Marshall, had
more important matters to attend to.
“I occupied the presidential suite in Hollywood by myself because my wife had just given birth to twins the previous Saturday,” Marshall Criser explained. “The Board of Governors still has a tradition that the outgoing president is honored at a luncheon at the end of the bar convention. So my wife, who was nursing the twins, was able to come down and spend the luncheon with us and then she had to get in the car and go back (to Palm Beach) for the next feeding.”
During the 1970s as a partner, Criser would continue to build the law firm known today as Gunster in West Palm Beach. He would serve on the Board of Regents from 1971 to 1981, as president of the University of Florida from 1984 to 1989 and as founding chairman of the UF Board of Trustees 2000 to 2003. Criser ended his professional career practicing law in Jacksonville.
One of those baby twins was Mark Criser (JD 97), who graduated from UF Law and is a shareholder in the litigation group of Hill Ward Henderson in Tampa. The younger Criser has recently turned
toward bar politics, campaigning on behalf of fellow Gator, Gwynne Young, for the bar presidency. He serves on the state bar ethics committee.
These days the annual conventions have moved to Orlando, but if history is a guide, there will be plenty more chances for Gators in the presidential suite.