Judge Lewis Calm Presence in Redistricting Storm
Around the State
He's a tennis ace who shoots hoops at lunch with a former Supreme Court justice and writes novels for fun. Most Saturdays, he can be found stuffing backpacks with food for poor kids who don't have enough to eat when school is out.
But right now, Terry Lewis is better known as the Tallahassee circuit judge who threw out the Florida Legislature's congressional map. His decision forced lawmakers, who haven't challenged it, into a special session that starts Thursday to fix what he called a tainted redistricting process that made a "mockery" of the constitutional prohibition against favoring incumbents or political parties.
"I've had my share," Lewis said, shrugging.
The North Florida native, who was born in Live Oak but grew up in Perry, handled three of the cases in the drawn-out dispute over the 2000 presidential election. Among his decisions related to the recount, Lewis ruled that then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris had the authority to stop any county vote tallies after a certain date. The state Supreme Court overturned his decision, but the U.S. Supreme Court later sided with Lewis.
The redistricting decision, which Lewis issued last month, also wasn't the first time he has been at odds with the Legislature.
In 1999, Lewis struck down a controversial state law backed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush requiring that parents be notified before minor girls could have abortions, calling it an "intrusion" into minors' privacy rights. An appeals court overturned that decision, but the state Supreme Court agreed with Lewis' interpretation that the law was unconstitutional. Lewis recused himself from a case dealing with Bush's marquee school-voucher plan because his wife was a public school teacher at the time.
In 2011, Lewis presided over the case against former House Speaker Ray Sansom after charges of conspiracy and theft led to the Panhandle Republican's political downfall. Prosecutors dropped all charges against Sansom after Lewis said they failed to prove that Sansom and political contributor Jay Odom had conspired to steal taxpayer money.
That same year, Lewis kept a lawmaker-proposed constitutional amendment off the ballot. The proposal would have allowed taxpayer money to fund religious institutions but, Lewis ruled, was written in a way that could have misled voters.
More recently, Lewis blocked part of a new no-fault auto insurance law, which he called "an experiment with socialism." An appellate court overturned his ruling.
In the courtroom, Lewis exudes a quiet competence but without the arrogance that sometimes accompanies jurists who have spent decades on the bench.
He speaks with a Southern twang so soft that even lawyers in the front row strain to hear him. He has a sharp wit, evidenced by his popularity as the emcee of Rotary club roasts.
Lewis is simply, in the view of many of his friends and colleagues, an all-around nice guy.
"He's just a real person," said Janet Ferris, a former Leon County circuit judge and friend of Lewis. "There's nothing fake or artificial about him. He's just a real, decent person."
Ferris said she offered to lend a hand to Lewis during the 2000 recount as cases kept being filed and critical election deadlines approached, but he demurred.
Lewis maintained his laid-back approach throughout the chaotic period, Ferris recalled.
"Terry Lewis handled the 2000 presidential election case the same way he would handle a car-accident case or someone charged with a robbery. He would just come in the courtroom and get it done," she said. "Even though that was one of the biggest cases ever for any trial judge to have to handle, you never got the impression that he thinks he's cool or he struts around the courthouse thinking, 'I just handled that case.' That's just the way he is."
"I just try to be calm," Lewis said, when asked about his reputation.
On his author's website, a blurb declares that Lewis' books "explore that ambiguous grey area that resides in the conflict between the law and morality," a tension that is sometimes reflected in his opinions.
But in practice, Lewis is "a straight-down-the-middle, intellectual judge," Tallahassee trial lawyer Don Hinkle said.
Like others approached about Lewis, Hinkle called Lewis the epitome of fairness, whether one agreed with his decisions or not.
"He actually thinks about what he's doing rather than just pulling the trigger and doing it the way it's always been done," Hinkle said. "He's humble, modest. That's great in a judge. When you try a lawsuit, it's about the lawsuit, it's not about him."
Lewis teaches courses at Florida State University's law school and also instructs and trains new judges. He's a dedicated member of the Rotary Club of Tallahassee, which he joined nearly 30 years ago and served once as president. Last year, he received the organization's highest honor, the Frederick Clifton Moor award.
Lewis is a "quiet leader" with "unquestionable integrity," said fellow Rotarian Marjorie Turnbull.
"He doesn't have any motive except to do what's right," Turnbull, who served as a state representative, said.
Lewis' demeanor in the courtroom is the same encountered on the tennis court or on the street, said Bill Corry, a lawyer for whom Lewis once clerked and who later became his law partner.
"I've known Terry 41 years. I don't think I've ever seen him lose his temper," Corry said. "I've seen him disappointed in people, and I guess upset with people or upset with situations but I've never seen him raise his voice or use profanity or really lose his temper."
During trials, Lewis frequently peppers lawyers with questions, seeming unafraid to show his own ignorance on issues or to flesh out esoteric points of law.
"He reads every file. He reads every motion. He reads the file cover to cover. He's always prepared," Corry said. "He's amazing. He really is. And he's just calm and easygoing and laid back. He makes everybody at ease and comfortable. Just an amazing human being, really."
Lewis shrugged off the praise heaped on him by those who know him.
"That's nice to hear," he said, smiling but clearly looking uncomfortable.
Corry recalled coming into the office and finding the kitchen filled with boxes of tomatoes or corn or eggs.
"I would ask him where did that come from? And he'd say one of our clients couldnt afford a fee so they just brought me vegetables. I said that's great but we can't pay the light bill with tomatoes and corn," Corry said. "They brought him furniture, too. One of his desks was given by a client that couldn't pay a fee."