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Justice's legacy brings life to the law

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 12, 2000


Asmall group of people gathered this week for lunch to celebrate the future of a new law school graduate who has just taken the Florida Bar exam and is anxiously awaiting the results.

The graduate -- Jason White, a 26-year-old native of Port St. Joe -- brought along his fiancee and his mother.

White is the first law school student to benefit from a scholarship fund established in memory of former Florida Supreme Court Justice James C. Adkins, who died in 1994.

It was as though a little of Adkins remains, carrying on in the lives of those who knew him best and in aspiring lawyers like White.

Raised by a single mother, White graduated in 1996 from Florida State University with a degree in sports medicine before deciding he'd like to go to law school. The scholarship helped him go to Coastal Law School in Jacksonville. He wants to return to Tallahassee and find a job to begin a civil law practice.

Those who gathered to wish White well wanted to let him know a little bit about the man whose life led to the scholarship.

Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw said Adkins knew more about Florida law than anyone on the court and told White that Adkins would be his biggest cheerleader if he were still around.

"He was interested in helping young people, especially young lawyers," Shaw recalled. "He would tell you what a jealous mistress the law is, but he would also tell you what a rewarding profession it is."

Shaw should know. He and Adkins served together on the Supreme Court until Adkins was forced to retire at the end of 1986.

Adkins didn't want to leave, but a Constitutional requirement that forces judges to retire when they are 70 years old sent him out the door. He fought the law with an age discrimination suit, but lost.

Tallahassee lawyer John D.C. Newton, his former law clerk, recalled that Adkins wrote many important opinions that are frequently cited today, but always kept a roll of toilet paper under his desk at the Supreme Court.

"It was to remind him that he wasn't any different than anyone else," Newton joked.

James Linn, a lawyer who practiced with Adkins after he left the court, recalled the days that Adkins walked to work, stopping to talk to people he'd meet on the street.

"Sometimes it was a homeless person," Linn recalled. "He had great influence on the law, but never lost his touch for common people. He always tried to help people out."

Sometimes the people he met on the street would call him for legal advice.

We called Adkins "Mr. Justice Sunshine," because he wrote many of the opinions that have opened up many of the state's records and meetings to public scrutiny.

I first met Adkins in 1965 when he was a circuit judge in Levy County. Most of what I learned about Florida law and the courts came from Adkins as he patiently explained things to a new young reporter who knew nothing about courtrooms.

That patience stayed with him for life. He was constantly teaching others and championing "Levy County Justice," common sense decisions that were fair. Nothing made him madder than a court decision that met the letter of the law but failed to dispense real justice.

These days his widow, Beth Lawrence Adkins, is finishing work on a novel about Cedar Key that Adkins was working on when he died. She also is looking for another aspiring law student who needs help.

Mrs. Adkins and a board of trustees look for "all around worthiness," not just a straight-A student.

They hope future generations of law students will remember Adkins and his work.

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