Retiring Florida Supreme Court Justice James E.C. Perry gives a history lesson as he looks toward the future.
FROM THE NEWS SERVICE
TALLAHASSEE – Florida Supreme Court Justice James E.C. Perry will retire this week and be replaced by C. Alan Lawson, who has served as chief judge of the 5th District Court of Appeal.
Perry, 72, is forced to leave the Supreme Court because the state Constitution requires justices to retire when they turn 70. The law allows justices like Perry to fulfill the remainder of their terms, depending on when their birthdays fall.
Perry was appointed by former Gov. Charlie Crist to the state’s high court in 2009. Nine years earlier, then-Gov. Jeb Bush tapped Perry to serve as a trial judge in the 18th Judicial Circuit.
Born in North Carolina, Perry – who said he decided to become a lawyer the night Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated – graduated from Columbia Law School and returned to the South and went to work for Georgia Indigent Legal Services. He later became Seminole County’s first Black judge after being appointed by Bush.
Perry is among five jurists who make up a majority of the seven-member court, which has drawn the wrath of Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP-dominated Legislature.
Perry answered one question of particular interest to Florida Courier readers during an interview with The News Service of Florida reporter Dara Kam.
Q: Among your numerous accomplishments, many people have given you high praise for representing a voice thus far absent from the state’s highest court. Can you elaborate on the perspective you brought to the Florida Supreme Court?
PERRY: That’s a loaded question. I hear about these labels of liberal, conservative. I think those are political terms that the other two branches of government use in order to box people into a corner. I don’t think that’s applicable to the third branch of government.
I believe all the justices, no matter how they’re labeled, are seeking the truth, and truth is in the eye of the beholder. I believe we’re all a very objective…
We’re products of our background. We bring our biases and our prejudices like anybody else. But we try to be aware of them because then you can deal with them. If you’re in denial in terms of your biases, you won’t deal with them…
‘More perfect union’
Obviously, everyone is a product of their experience. I guess my whole reason for being in the law was because of my experiences of injustice and the sense of wanting to fulfill the ideals of the founders when they said there should be a more perfect union.
Of course, there could never be a more perfect union. You can only ascribe to make it as good as you can get. So yes, I knew about injustice. I knew about apartheid. I knew about segregation. I’ve experienced it, and the vestiges are still here. It’s more systemic. It was built into the system.
America was founded on racial superiority. It was. And the fact that the Constitution, the 13th Amendment freed the slaves, Jim Crow took off after that, and the Klan and the (lynchings)…It went on until the `60s, and it went on until Brown v. Board of Education.
Law validated norms
I guess I found that the law was the most conservative institution around. The law wasn’t necessarily in the vanguard of any changes. It more or less validated whatever the cultural norms were.
And in a sense, there was a cognitive dissonance. Because the Dred Scott case said that Blacks don’t have any rights that Whites need to respect. And of course, Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 case, said separate and equal is fine and that was the law of the land until the `54 Brown decision.
Then when the Brown decision came about there was obviously a rebelling … that became the Southern Manifesto. And every congressperson, which included every senator and every representative, signed it. The (doctrine) said, “Segregation now, segregation’s very fine.” They just wanted to disregard the Supreme Court decision.
The three that didn’t sign on were Estes Kefauver, Sen. (Al) Gore and (Lyndon) Johnson, out of Texas, President Johnson. Those were the only three that didn’t sign onto it. So you still have this struggle, within the context of the American power system.
The Southerners had seniority because they would elect the same people over and over and over. So therefore they were jammed in committees, etc., etc., etc., and they had the power positions. So there was this interplay with so-called freedom.
Brown was decided in ‘54. I graduated from high school in ‘62, and it was still segregated. It was segregated until probably about ‘65, I guess, in my home state. So this ‘all deliberate speed,’ what does that mean? That means you don’t really have to do it.
Then you have the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Basically, what happened there is, when Johnson signed it, he said, “I’m going to lose the South forever, for the next couple of decades.” And that’s when the blue states became red. And that’s when the Democratic South became Republican. That’s the facts of life. That’s history. It’s not my opinion.
And, of course, there was resistance to that even. Now, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, saying he was such a great person. But then, he wasn’t. He was the most hated and vilified person in the nation, by large segments of our population, led by J. Edgar Hoover, of all people, who said he was the most dangerous man in America.
I mean, this is where we are. We aren’t talking about 200 years ago. So I’m saying these vestiges are still alive and well. I don’t think a lot of people, I don’t think it’s in their consciousness, but it’s there.
White privilege is real
President Johnson asked the question, and I ask the question now: How many Whites – if they think everything is fair and equal – how many Whites would voluntarily be treated the way Blacks are treated in America today? How many would give up their White privilege?
That was a rhetorical question. The answer is nobody would. And that’s not to place blame on anybody. That is to make people get out of this denial that there’s even a problem.
They say get over it. Well, how do you get over it? You can’t get over it when you’re in it. Even as a Supreme Court justice, I’ve been stopped by police when I wasn’t speeding. I’ve been targeted.
As a judge, I’m going to a meeting in Tampa, a statewide trial court judge commission meeting, at the Second District Court of Appeal. The meeting was on the second floor. We were taken by van from the hotel to the court. We got out and proceeded to go to the elevator.
My colleagues got out and went on the elevator, and the guard asked me, “Where are you going?” So, yes. It’s real. We’ve been subjected to this for so long.
I took my wife on a 40th anniversary trip to Disney World and stayed at the Dolphin Hotel. I came down to get my car from the valet and this White woman came up to me and said, “How many can you take?” I said, “I can take five or six.” You have to maintain a sense of humor.
Blacks have PTSD
You’ve heard of the Vietnam vets and the Desert Storm people who have post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). That same process could be attributed to Black people in America…That’s why you would never want to change places with us.
And I understand that. I would never ask you to do that. But what I would ask is that you try to understand what the problems are and try to do something about it.
A possible target
…I’m hesitant to walk, to exercise in my neighborhood because of some of these alt-right people who are getting ready for the race war. I’m who they’re going to have it with. That’s the thinking…
And these “truthers” who believe whatever they believe. And some of them are very extreme. They might decide to go to target practice on me, not knowing who I am, but because they see my skin.
Am I worried about my sons going to stores? Yes. They drive nice cars. They’re educated. They’re professional. But they’re stopped by police, thinking they must be selling drugs. When people see me driving, I drive a nice car. And they stop me.
They don’t know who I am. They say, you must be something, somebody. Are you a preacher? What are you, a professional football player? I could never be a judge or a justice. That’s just the mindset of most people in the country. I don’t think they’re even aware of it.
I don’t think it’s a conscious thing. It’s like fish in the water. You’re so used to the water, water’s necessary for you to breath or live. It’s just that simple. All of my water is polluted.