Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Ben Overton Dies; He Put Courts on TV

By: Jim Turner | Posted: December 31, 2012 3:55 AM

Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Ben F. Overton, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew, died Saturday in Gainesville, the court announced.

Ben Overton
Overton, 86, the state’s 62nd justice since statehood, who had been known for his work in legal education and dispute resolution, died of complications from heart surgery.

He had been appointed to the court on March 27, 1974, by Gov. Askew, the first justice named after the implementation of merit selection process replaced the direct election of judges.

Overton, who authored more than 1,400 decisions, served until reaching mandatory retirement in 1999.

A release from the state Supreme Court noted that Overton -- who had been born in Green Bay, Wis., and came to Florida in 1945 after serving in the U.S. Army -- helped make Florida one of the first states to televise court cases, expanded the use of a videoconferencing center for the justices, and backed the top court establishing a public website.

“Justice Overton was one of the most influential members of the court after the sweeping reforms of the 1970s," Chief Justice Ricky Polston stated in a release.

“He will be remembered not only for his far-seeing opinions but also for his efforts in the 1970s to make the state courts more accessible by allowing cameras into our courtrooms.”

Among the rulings of the court during Overton’s tenure: taverns could be held liable for the actions of patrons who are “known drunkards”; a store selling or renting obscene material was not protected by the state`s right to privacy, thus distributing tapes declared obscene could be a violation of Florida's racketeering laws; prohibited sheriff's deputies from boarding buses to search passengers' luggage; and ruled forced tube-feeding of an incompetent patient violated that patient's privacy rights guaranteed in the Florida Constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the prohibition on deputy searches.

In September, Overton had joined five other former justices in criticizing what they viewed as the politicizing of the judicial system by those trying to defeat the three sitting justices -- branded as being liberal activists -- who were up for merit retention.

Overton served as chief justice from 1976-1978.

Overton’s retirement led to an unprecedented agreement between Gov. Lawton Chiles and then Gov.-elect Jeb Bush, as they both appointed Peggy Ann Quince as Overton’s replacement, rather than engaging in a potentially protracted battle.

A University of Florida graduate who earned his law degree from the Gainesville university in 1952, Overton earned an LL.M in jurisprudence from the University of Virginia in 1984.

He served nearly a decade on the Pinellas County circuit court, spent time as chairman of the Dispute Resolution Section of the American Bar Association, and he remained an active adjunct professor of law at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law.

Predeceased by his wife Marilyn, Overton is survived by his children Judge William H. Overton, Robert M. Overton, and Catherine L. Overton; 2 grandchildren William E. and Brian H.; and one great-grandchild, Adelynn.

Services will be held Jan. 5, in Gainesville. Justice Overton will lie in state at the Florida Supreme Court on Jan. 7.

He will be interred in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday, Jan. 9.

Reach Jim Turner at or at (772) 215-9889.

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