Justice Fred Lewis. (Meet the Court).
In his application, to the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission in 1988, Fred Lewis wrote about why he wanted to be a justice: "I offer eyes and ears that can not only see and listen, but also understand and hear human difficulties. My lessons of life came from being born into generations of coal miners in the mountains of West Virginia and the sense of community and human interaction necessary for survival at that time."
It is that sense of community and the need to work for a better tomorrow that has led Justice Lewis to become heavily involved in children's issues, a passion he says he can trace back to his first "real job" as a youth director at his local YMCA in West Virginia.
"The summer before coming to college in Florida, I was able to do the things I loved with the kids," said Lewis, who attended Florida Southern College in Lakeland on a basketball scholarship and then earned his J.D. from the University of Miami. "I thought, 'It doesn't get any better than this.'"
His interest in children's issues also grew as his own family did. Lewis and his wife, Judith, have two children. The oldest daughter, Bile, was always heavily involved in sports, and the family often traveled around the country for her tennis competitions. But it was his youngest daughter Lindsay -- who battles a metabolic disorder -- who taught Lewis first-hand about children who struggle just to survive.
"With Lindsay's problem, then I saw sick kids," Lewis said. "Before, the worst problems the kids had was whether they were going to the movies or getting pizza, and with the sick kids [it was] if they were going to live the next day."
It is through the illness of his youngest daughter that Lewis learned "there are a lot of things that need attention."
Lewis has served as a member of the board of directors of Miami Children's Hospital and many of its committees and panels. While in private practice, he was heavily involved in providing counseling to families with impaired children, and he provided pro bono legal services and counseling for cancer patients seeking proper treatment for multiple conditions. Lewis also coached youth baseball teams in Miami.
"My wife would tease me because the neighborhood kids would come by to see if I would come out and play."
He now volunteers with the Florida Law Related Education Association and travels around the state visiting classrooms, putting a human face on the Supreme Court, while making the law relevant to students of all ages.
Growing up poor in the mountains, Lewis said just going to college seemed an improbability, let alone someday becoming a Supreme Court justice.
"Where I grew up, if you had a problem, you went to a lawyer," Lewis said. "So, once I realized I was going to be able to go to college, I thought that would be a good thing to be. I never even had a thought that I would be able to go to college. So it kind of developed, and after becoming a lawyer, I really loved being a lawyer."
Becoming a justice was not an easy process for Lewis, who was once turned down for a seat on the Third District Court of Appeal.
"Before that, I had never really known [now retired) Judge [Thomas] Barkdull, but, he explained it in. terms of by just being involved you make the process better, because you elevated the group from which a judge was to be selected. So, by not being selected, you still served a positive function," Lewis said. "And that meant an awful lot, because when you go through it and you have that possibility and you feel rejected, it is not a good feeling."
Lewis said he never sought to become a judge because he tired of being a lawyer, but "because there's a job that needs to be done." Justice Lewis said he saw the opportunity to serve on the Florida Supreme Court as a great chance to help people, especially children.
"It is real special to be able to be in the schools and to share," said Justice Lewis, while choking back tears. "Some of these kids will never have these experiences if we don't go to them. When you have the opportunity to be in this institution, it's more than just a job. That's why I get so emotional. It's something that becomes part of your soul, a calling."
Lewis said he went onto the court with an appreciation of enormity of the responsibility before him, but becoming a justice was nothing like he expected.
"When I came across from the Capitol that morning, I had no idea what to expect, but it was just like I was a member of the family," he said. "That is the tenor of this group. You can accomplish a lot of good when you are in that kind of atmosphere."
Lewis said Florida's Supreme Court is "a remarkable institution from the basement on up."
"I thought I had the best law firm ever, until I got up here," Lewis said. "The quality of the people and the dedication in what they are doing, it was beyond my expectations."