Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Ben F. Overton, the first justice appointed by the governor after the switch in the 1970s from elected justices, has died from complications of heart surgery, a spokesman for the court said.
Overton, who retired in 1999, was 86.
On the court for more than two decades, his legacy includes letting cameras into Florida courtrooms.
Overton, who died Saturday in Gainesville, was appointed in March 1974 by Governor Reubin Askew, authored more than 1400 decisions and was chief justice from 1976 to 1978.
“Justice Overton was one of the most influential members of the Court after the sweeping reforms of the 1970s,” Chief Justice Ricky Polston said. “He will be remembered not only for his far-seeing opinions but also for his efforts in the 1970s to make the state courts more accessible by allowing cameras into our courtrooms.”
After several justices who had been elected and had to raise campaign cash were charged with ethics violations in the early and mid-1970s, Askew overhauled the system, creating the merit retention system in which the governor appoints justices based on a list from a nominating committee. Overton was Askew’s first appointment to the revamped court.
Justices still faced contested re-elections after appointment until Florida voters further amended the Constitution in 1976 to create the current merit retention system. Overton was an advocate for that system, under which justices’ names go on the ballot at the end of their term for voters to decide whether to retain them, rather than have them running against opponents. It is still in place.
In addition to making Florida one of the first states to allow television of court cases, he also pushed for the court’s creation of a website, one of the first state high courts to do so. He also pushed for the televised recording of every Supreme Court oral argument, and for their storage in an online archive.
Before his appointment to the court, Overton spent nearly 10 years as a circuit judge in both the civil and criminal divisions of the Sixth Judicial Circuit in Pinellas and Pasco counties. He was appointed to the bench in 1964 by Governor Farris Bryant. He had also been an assistant state attorney general, St. Petersburg city attorney and practiced law.
Overton was born Dec. 15, 1926 in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and attended the University of Florida and the University of Virginia. His wife, Marilyn, died earlier. He is survived by his sons, Judge William H. Overton and Robert M. Overton, and his daughter, Catherine Overton, as well as two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Services are set for Saturday, Jan. 5, in Gainesville, and Overton will lie in repose at the Florida Supreme Court on Monday, Jan. 7, before burial in St. Petersburg.