Veteran litigator and constitutional scholar Parker Thomson, who paired a sharp legal mind with attention-deflecting humility in countless cases, died at 85, his family said.
Thomson, who was of counsel at Hogan Lovells, was known for his work as a high-caliber commercial, environmental and First Amendment expert in trial court and at the appellate level.
“He had a preternatural intelligence that allowed him to ‘cut to the chase,’ ” Hogan Lovells CEO Stephen Immelt said in an email to the firm. “ He could sometimes seem gruff, but beneath that was a gentle soul who cared deeply about others.”
Thomson litigated issues from juvenile justice to physician-assisted suicide and from the workload of public defenders to limits on newspaper political ads, often pro bono.
On the environmental front, he was involved in cases to protect the Everglades, stop oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida and keep phosphate companies from mining the pristine Peace River bed.
George Sheldon, former director of the state Department of Children and Families, remembered his work for developmentally disabled people that helped close state-run hospitals with deplorable operations in the 1980s. Residents were hosed down in their rooms, and three-level bunk beds were crammed so close that anyone could walk across them.
“He clearly had a passion for Florida,” Sheldon said. “Every kind of thing he took on, there was always an underlying principal of making life better for his children. He truly was a giant, and those kind of people don’t come along that often.”
Hogan & Lovells partner Carol Licko, who practiced with Thomson for decades, said, “People looked to Parker as being the lawyer’s lawyer.” She considered him a mentor and “a true civic giant and public servant.”
Thomson’s position was not always front and center. Former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth recalled the behind-the-scenes role played by Thomson when a deal was reached on a landmark state tobacco settlement in 1996.
In the room for the state were Gov. Lawton Chiles, First Lady Rhea Chiles, Butterworth and Thomson when the final wording was hammered out at about 3 a.m. ahead of a morning news conference to announce the deal.
Parker’s team signed on for “hard, difficult cases, and they prevailed all the time,” Butterworth said. “I would not want to go against him. I’m glad he was on our side.”
Thomson and Holland & Knight partner Sanford Bohrer, who were former colleagues, shared the Florida Supreme Court’s first pro bono award.
“Parker was one of those guys, when other lawyers saw he was in the case, it was kind of an oh-s— moment. He never missed anything,” said Bohrer, who also considered Thomson a mentor. Bohrer called him “the best, most perceptive lawyer I ever saw.”
Thomson, an elder statesman of the Florida bar, handled three U.S. Supreme Court cases and argued before the Florida Supreme Court dozens of times.
Public service was a lifelong pursuit in and out of court. He labored for more than 20 years to develop Miami’s Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and pressed for creation of the Underline, a proposal to use the strip of land under Miami’s Metrorail commuter rail system as a 10-mile linear park.
The Coral Gables resident also chaired the Collins Center for Public Policy and the state Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities.
As a newly minted Harvard LL.B. graduate, Thomson joined Ropes & Gray as a securities lawyer and worked with James Vorenberg, who would later become Harvard’s law dean.
Thomson moved to Miami in 1961 and formed Paul & Thomson with Dan Paul. They practiced together for more than 20 years. Next up was Thomson, Zeder, Bohrer, Werth, Adorno & Razook. In 2001, he joined Hogan & Hartson, which through a merger became Hogan Lovells, where he was a partner and more recently of counsel.
“He was brutal in a courtroom,” Bohrer said, noting Thomson routinely out-thought other lawyers. “You simply couldn’t stump the guy. It couldn’t happen.”
Paul and Thomson teamed up for the newspaper in the U.S. Supreme Court First Amendment case Miami Herald Publishing v. Tornillo. Miami-Dade teachers union leader Pat Tornillo demanded the Herald publish his responses to two editorials against his state House candidacy under a state law struck down as a violation of press freedom.
Thomson’s celebrity clients included the widow of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, who successfully fought the release of his autopsy photographs, and German developer Thomas Kramer, who spearheaded the revival of South Beach’s South of Fifth neighborhood but ended up in serious debt.
His U.S. Supreme Court record was 0-3. He lost a 1988 case, Florida v. Riley, attempting to strike the results of a Pasco County sheriff’s helicopter flight used to obtain a warrant to search a marijuana grow house.
As a special assistant attorney general of Florida, he lost a case, Edenfield v. Fane, in 1993 striking down state restrictions on client solicitation by accountants.
In Lynce v. Mathis, Thomson unsuccessfully defended a 1992 state law that canceled early release credits tied to prison overcrowding following public outrage about crimes committed by ex-felons freed early.
“It was not just the law that he was involved with. He was involved with the people,” Butterworth said.
Thomson died Friday. He is survived by his wife, Vann, and children Parker Thomson Jr., Peter Thomson, Meg Daly and Jamie Thomas.
A celebration of life is set for 3 p.m. Saturday at the Knight Concert Hall at the Arsht Center.