Southern Gentleman, Savvy Lawyer William Dexter Douglass Dies
Around the State
William Dexter Douglass, the Tallahassee lawyer who helped rewrite Florida's Constitution, represented Al Gore in the infamous 2000 Florida recount and played a critical role in the state's landmark multibillion-dollar settlement with tobacco companies, has died at age 83.
A North Florida native born in Pensacola in 1929, Douglass was as at home herding cattle as he was arguing cases before the Supreme Court.
Douglass's pronounced Southern drawl and self-deprecating demeanor -- he frequently referred to himself as a "simple country lawyer" -- belied one of the state's most acute legal minds honed over a career that spanned six decades.
Douglass served two presidents, four governors, a Florida Supreme Court justice and numerous prominent elected officials after his admission to the Florida Bar in 1955.
Douglass died at home early Tuesday after being diagnosed with bladder cancer. He is survived by his wife Therese, three children and numerous grandchildren.
Douglass was one of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles' closest confidants, and it was while he worked as Chiles' general counsel that Florida took tobacco companies to court in a groundbreaking lawsuit that resulted in an $11 billion settlement.
Douglass and Chiles met at the University of Florida, where both received law degrees, and remained close until Chiles' death in 1998.
"He was almost a prototype of the old-school lawyer," said Sandy D'Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association and onetime Florida State University president.
Douglass's breadth of experience in state and federal courts included cases involving school vouchers, medical malpractice, the First Amendment and civil rights.
"He was a lawyer who would take on a large variety of cases, civil and criminal, and he did all of them with great competence. The people who have been his clients all loved him," D'Alemberte said. "He represented an awful lot of just plain, ordinary folks. He identified with people in ways that many lawyers could not."
Douglass's nephew Doug Wiles, a former state representative from St. Augustine, called his uncle the "go-to person" -- tapped by for four governors and two presidents -- due to his intimate knowledge of Florida's political history.
"Dexter had a sharp mind and a quick wit, and his knowledge of Florida and Florida politics in particular was really unmatched by anybody I think, which made him a natural fit for all things in the Capitol and in Tallahassee," said Wiles, who served as House minority leader in 2003 and 2004.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist said he relied on Douglass, even though, at the time, Crist was a Republican and Douglass was an avowed Democrat.
"Like many before me, during my tenure as governor I came to lean on Dexter for his sage counsel and wisdom,'' said Crist, who later became a Democrat. "I really respected and loved him. Floridians will long be grateful for his service to the state he loved."
D'Alemberte said he and Douglass were part of a group of "old geezers" who lunched together regularly in Tallahassee and whose conversations revolved to a large extent around Douglass' stories, spiced by an acerbic wit and often gleaned from his roster of influential Tallahassee clients.
Douglass represented Florida Supreme Court Justice Joseph Boyd during a court scandal in the 1970s. Two other justices were forced off the bench, but Boyd avoided impeachment and later became chief justice. D'Alemberte, who presided over the proceedings, said that Boyd remained a jurist "entirely because of Dexter's good lawyering."
He also successfully defended the late lawmaker Mallory Horne, a former House speaker and Senate president charged by federal prosecutors with money laundering. He later brought Horne into his legal practice, and was responsible for Horne maintaining his ability to practice law, D'Alemberte said.
D'Alemberte also credited Douglass with Florida's successful settlement with tobacco companies in 1997.
Douglass "developed a strategy for that and did a lot of the high-level lawyering of that tobacco case, which was the first time in the U.S. that the tobacco companies had a major adverse judgment against them," D'Alemberte said.
April Salter, who served as one of Chiles' communications directors, said Douglass helped coordinate the tobacco "dream team" -- a job she likened to "herding cats" because of the strong-willed attorneys involved.
"He was both an extremely courteous, but tough person,'' Salter said, remembering Douglass as a "very stately man, a Southern gentleman" who shared a "mischievousness" with the late governor.
Douglass received a Medal of Honor in 2006 from the Florida Bar for "a lifetime of service and sacrifice," particularly for his work as chairman of the Constitution Revision Commission in 1998.
Douglass helped the commission craft a number of changes to the state Constitution later approved by Florida voters, including one that revamped the way the state courts are funded and another declaring education a "paramount duty of the state."
Douglass's legal and political acumen earned him a spot as the head of Gore's legal team in Florida during the protracted 2000 presidential recount.
Douglass spent much of his time on his 300-acre ranch east of Tallahassee as a "gentleman farmer" where he raised cattle.
"He loved to get out on the tractor and mow and do the things farmers do. That just kept him in touch with the world and was certainly a great part of what he did," Wiles said. "That was a part of Dexter."
Douglass was also renowned for his passion for politics.
"He loved it. He enjoyed it. It was something he had a great affinity for," Wiles said. "He not only had a sense of right and wrong but he also had a sense of timing and how to go about doing things in the right way for the best interest of everybody concerned. There's not too many folks that are still around that were a part of politics for so long."