Life and politics from the Sunshine State's best city

Judicial history that changed government and life

in Apolitical/Top Headlines by

At a Wednesday night book signing for “50 Years of Justice,” a look at the history of the Federal Court Middle District of Florida, author James M. Denham noted that the district, which stretches from Jacksonville to Fort Myers with federal courthouses in Jacksonville, Ocala, Orlando Tampa and Fort Myers, has been responsible for numerous rulings that changed government and society.

A meticulous researcher, Denham is professor of history at Florida Southern College in Lakeland and is director of the college’s Lawton Chiles Center for Florida History.

Among the many cases coming from the Middle District, one of the largest and busiest federal courts in the nation, was, of course, the decision in the Terri Schiavo “right to die” case, Denham said, an issue that involved and divided the Legislature and the state.

But the federal court had many far-ranging rulings. Carlos Lehder was one of the first of the Colombian drug lords to be tried in the United States. The case is the basis of the movie “Blow.”

And as with all federal courts beginning in the 1960s, the Middle district has made desegregation decisions in all 35 counties in its boundaries.

Some of those counties went back and forth year after year right up to 2010,” Denham noted.

One of the most flamboyant was Florida Gov. Claude Kirk, who learned the power of the court during some of the early civil rights cases when Middle District Federal Judge Ben Krentzman threatened to jail the sitting governor as he tried to prevent a court busing order in Manatee County, Denham noted.

Among those standing before the court were mobster Santo Trafficante, drug lord Carlos Lehder, baseball star Denny McLain, movie star Wesley Snipes and USF professor Sami Al-Arian, a prominent Palestinian activist.

Created in 1962, the Middle District has also seen famous attorneys appearing before it as well, including civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall, criminal defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, and Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Walter W. Manley II, co-editor of “The Supreme Court of Florida and Its Predecessor Courts,” said Denham’s book “succeeds in lifting the veil to capture the daily drama, excitement, and importance of one federal district court’s work–all within the framework of the legal and political developments of the time.”

Former Ledger of Lakeland columnist Bill Rufty is Central Florida political correspondent for SaintPetersBlog and Florida Politics. Rufty had been with the Ledger from 1985-2015, where, as political editor, he covered a wide range of beats, including local and state politics, the Lakeland City Commission, and the Florida Legislature. Ledger editor Lenore Devore said about Rufty’s 30-year career: “[He is] a man full of knowledge, a polling expert and a war history buff … who has a steel trap in his brain, remembering details most of us have long since forgotten.”

Latest from Apolitical

Go to Top