Fort Lauderdale litigator Eugene Pettis was sworn in Friday as the first black president of The Florida Bar to tears, thunderous applause and a standing ovation from a standing-room only crowd.
Nearly half of the 750 people in attendance were black lawyers, family members and members of Pettis’ lifelong church, the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale. Before the oath of office was administered, the church choir sang Lift Every Voice and Sing.
In his acceptance speech, Pettis, who will serve a one-year term, invoked black historical and legal leaders, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.; Joseph Hatchett, the first black justice on the Florida Supreme Court; T.J. Reddick Jr., the first black attorney to open a law office in Broward County; Bernice Gaines Dorn, the first black woman to receive a Florida Bar license; and Virgil Hawkins Jr., the first black student admitted to the University of Florida College of Law after he fought segregation in the school.
Pettis also acknowledged the late Judge Henry Latimer, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who was set to become the first black president of The Florida Bar before dying in a car crash in 2005.
“Henry’s spirit lives today,” Pettis said. “All I’ve done is cross the finish line of a race that was started a century ago. No doubt this is a watershed in our history. But I am certainly not the sole cause of this.”
Pettis’ goals as president are to oversee his new Florida Bar Academy, a leadership training program; start a three-year study of the legal profession dubbed Vision 2016; and strengthen civics education programs.
Pettis, 52, is a founding partner of Halcizer, Pettis & Schwamm.
With 96,000 lawyers, The Florida Bar is the second largest state bar group in the country.
In her last acts as outgoing Bar president, Gwynne Young, a Carlton Fields shareholder in Tampa, handed out several awards. The recipients:
– Sandy Diamond, a Seminole lawyer and Bar board of governors members, who received the top president’s award for her work chairing the Votes In Your Court voter education program on judicial merit retention elections.
– John Stewart, a Vero Beach lawyer and member of the Bar board of governors, who received the president’s award for his work as chair of the program evaluation committee.
– Jacksonville lawyer Paul Doyle, a 22-year director of The Florida Bar Foundation’s Legal Assistance to the Poor and Law School Assistance Grants Programs, who received the G. Kirk Haas Humanitarian Award
– Darlene Kelly, executive director of the Hillsborough County Bar Foundation, who received the Marshall R. Cassedy Sr. Award for helping raise $4 million to build the Chester Ferguson Law Center in Hillsborough County