Hailed as "a judge's judge," C. Alan Lawson was formally sworn in Wednesday as a member of the Florida Supreme Court in a ceremony marked by high praise for Gov. Rick Scott's first appointee to the seven-member panel.
Lawson, a veteran appellate judge who joined the state's highest court on Dec. 31, represents the governor's first opportunity to shape a liberal-leaning court whose majority has repeatedly frustrated conservative lawmakers and Scott over a variety of issues.
Scott tapped Lawson, 55, to replace Justice James E.C. Perry, who was forced to step down last year after reaching the constitutionally mandated retirement age.
The governor, who formally handed Lawson's credentials to Chief Justice Jorge Labarga on Wednesday, called Lawson a "truly great man" who is "focused on defending the Constitution and strictly adhering to the rule of law."
The appointment of Lawson, the state's 86th Supreme Court justice, reduces the influence of the more-liberal majority, which had been made up of Perry, Labarga and justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince.
As evidenced in several opinions since he joined the court, Lawson is likely to bolster the conservative-leaning minority comprised of Charles Canady and Ricky Polston. Lawson listed both justices as references on his application for the post.
During Wednesday's investiture ceremony, Lawson, 55, was lauded by current and former colleagues on the bench, including Pariente and Canady, who said he first met Lawson 15 years ago when Canady served as general counsel for former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Canady said he told Bush at the time that he "had never interviewed a more impressive judicial candidate for any judicial position" and that Lawson's strength as a judge has intensified since then.
"Alan's contributions are recognized throughout the judiciary," Canady said. "I do not believe there is a judge in the state who is more highly respected by his judicial colleagues."
Lawson "comes as well-prepared to do the work of a justice as anyone in the history of the Supreme Court," Canady added.
A 1987 graduate of the Florida State University Law School, Lawson most recently served as chief judge of the Daytona Beach-based 5th District Court of Appeal.
Pariente, who will likely find herself frequently on the other side of Lawson in judicial decisions, praised her new colleague, saying that Lawson, since joining the court, had "already proved" himself to be "kind, collegial, open minded and humble."
Indeed, humility was one of Lawson's characteristics stressed by nearly all of the judges who spoke at Wednesday's 90-minute ceremony, attended by luminaries such as former Florida State University President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte; current FSU President John Thrasher; current and former law school deans of FSU and the University of Florida; a number of retired state Supreme Court justices; and 70 black-robe garbed judges, who opened the proceedings by filing into the packed courtroom.
Jay Cohen, who succeeded Lawson as chief judge of the 5th District Court of Appeal, called Lawson a man of Â "impeccable integrity" who is "one of the most humble people that you'll ever meet."
"He's adept at disagreeing without being disagreeable" and "will listen to opposing viewpoints with an open mind," Cohen said.
"If you were to list the qualities we want in a judge, Justice Lawson fits that bill," Cohen said.
"Calm," "exceptionally smart" and "a man of the utmost integrity" were just some of the qualities espoused by Cohen and others.
"He is a judge's judge," Cohen said.
A native of Lakeland who grew up in Tallahassee, Lawson and his wife, Julie, have volunteered for nearly two decades in Honduras.
Holding a copy of the U.S. Constitution, one of the gifts he received at Wednesday's ceremony, Lawson spoke about the intentions of the nation's founders with reverence.
"Justice, and liberty. Freedom and justice. That's what it's all about. That's why they did it," he said. "Justice under our Constitution is largely the provenance of the judicial branch. … It happens every day in 67 counties in courthouses in your communities, or doesn't happen every day."
Lawson also referred to a court seal, which, translated from Latin, means "soon enough, if right," a phrase he said troubled him at first.
But Lawson likened the concept to a Russian proverb: If you chase two rabbits, you won't catch either.
"… Processing cases efficiently while achieving the best result, I don't know if that looks like justice," Lawson said. "Soon enough, if right. Maybe that means, if you're going to have one thing you're going to try to do, it's got to be justice."
Lawson's remarks were particularly pointed as lawmakers consider forcing the Supreme Court to report on how quickly decisions are delivered on cases. Several high-ranking lawmakers, including Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, sat in the front rows during Wednesday's ceremony.
Lawson also delivered some advice that in part reflected the judicial philosophy that earned him the job.
"When it comes to the judicial branch, there are two things are clear," he said. "If we're going to enjoy freedoms we have, our judges have to be independent."
Judges must be "protected from influence by power, by political parties, by the people, even," he said.
Second, he said, judges themselves have to follow the law.
Lawson pledged to "follow the Constitution and do so faithfully, and that is the oath I took today."