Leander Shaw, Jr., the first African-American Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, died Monday, December 14, 2015 following an extended illness. Shaw’s legal career in Florida spanned over 40 years, including stints as a public defender, prosecutor, appeals court judge, and law professor in addition to his time on the state’s highest bench.
Justice Shaw was born in Salem, Virginia in 1930 and educated at West Virginia State College and Howard University in Washington, D.C. He received his law degree in 1957 and moved to Tallahassee to accept a position as professor of law at Florida A&M University. Shaw took the Florida Bar exam in the old DuPont Plaza Hotel in Miami in 1960, but because of his race was not permitted to stay there. According to Florida Supreme Court officials, when Shaw was admitted to the Bar that year he became one of only about 25 black attorneys practicing in the state at the time.
Shaw moved to Jacksonville and began practicing as a private attorney. His office was located in the old Masonic Lodge at the corner of Broad and West Duval streets downtown. As a young African-American attorney practicing when Jim Crow was only just beginning to loosen its grip on Southern society, “Lawyer Shaw” found himself dispensing lots of pro bono advice. One of Shaw’s friends, Ray Barney, noted that Shaw was one of very few black attorneys available in Jacksonville at the time, yet he was always willing to help everyday members of the community understand the legal system and their rights. In 1990, Barney told Florida Magazine that Shaw “probably would have made a lot more money if he’d paid less attention to regular folks. But I always thought he was more like a pastor in a church than a lawyer.”
Shaw’s commitment to the public became more official when he was recruited as an assistant public defender for Duval County. In 1969 he became head of the Capital Crimes Division of the State Attorney’s staff and an adviser to the grand jury. In 1974, Governor Reubin Askew appointed Shaw to the Florida Industrial Relations Commission, where he served until Governor Bob Graham appointed him to the First District Court of Appeals in 1979.
Governor Graham appointed Leander Shaw as a Justice to the Florida Supreme Court in 1983, making him the second African-American to serve in that capacity. The first, Joseph Hatchett, had resigned his post a few years before to become a federal appeals court judge. Shaw served his term as Chief Justice from 1990 to 1992. He retired from the bench in 2003, but leaves behind a strong legacy of public service and dedication to the law.