Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Fla. to have its first black female chief justice

Her fellow justices elected her to two-year term

TALLAHASSEE — Florida is marking its own milestone at a heady time when a black and a woman are contenders for the White House.

The state Supreme Court is about to have its first black female chief justice.

Justice Peggy Quince, known for her quick mind and probing questions on the bench, and an engaging personality off, was elected by her six fellow justices to the rotating, two-year post, the court announced Friday. Her term begins July 1.

“It is an honor and a privilege being a member of the Court and serving with outstanding Florida public servants,” Quince said in a statement. “I thank my colleagues for their trust in me and look forward to serving the people of this state in this new capacity.”

The chief justice leads the court in its oral arguments and discussion among justices. In addition, the chief justice oversees the state courts system, including management of the State Courts Administrator and regulation of The Florida Bar.

Justice Barbara Pariente, the only other woman serving on the Supreme Court, called Quince, "the epitome of a great colleague and outstanding jurist.

"And now she will make history by becoming the first African-American woman to lead the third branch of government.''

Quince, 60, is a native of Norfolk, Va., and daughter of a longshoreman.

She was attending segregated schools when the U.S. Supreme Court issued the groundbreaking decision Brown vs. Board of Education.

Her professional career began with an undergraduate degree in zoology from Howard University in 1970 and a law degree from the Catholic University of America in 1975. She has been a government lawyer, prosecuting death penalty cases as an assistant attorney general.

She was appointed to the Second District Court of Appeal in 1993, becoming the first black woman appointed to any of the state's five lower appellate courts.

Her shared 1998 appointment to the Supreme Court, coming as the Democratic administration of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles was winding down and that of Republican Jeb Bush was ramping up, says a lot about her reputation for impartiality, said veteran Tallahassee attorney Ron Meyer.

"Justice Quince has distinguished herself as an outstanding jurist and this is a testament to that," Meyer said. "I'm just pleased as punch that the state is getting its first African-American woman chief justice. The justices couldn't have made a better choice."

Meyer argued and won one of the court's most controversial cases since Quince came to the bench.

In January 2006, Quince sided with the majority in the 5-2 decision in Bush vs. Holmes that struck down Bush's private school voucher program.

But Quince is hard to categorize as a traditional liberal, attorneys said.

"When you argue to the court, you're never sure which side she is going to come down on," said South Florida appellate lawyer Bruce Rogow. "She asks questions about issues that interest her, not ones that reveal a point of view. That's wonderful."

Assistant Attorney General Carolyn Snurkowski, director of the criminal appellant division, appears before Quince in death penalty cases. Quince often rules against her, but Snurkowski is satisfied Quince is weighing the merits of the individual cases and arguments.

Although Quince has a calm demeanor, attorneys better come to court prepared and ready to answer questions, Snurkowski said.

"She's a government lawyer and that makes her special to us," Snurkowski said.

"She's come up through the ranks. She knows what it's like to argue a case and prepare a brief."

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