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Overton cast a long shadow over courts, his children

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:41 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

When William Overton was a student at Azalea Middle School in the 1960s, his father, then the chief circuit judge, told area teachers, including young William's, they couldn't go on strike.

His father's influence hung over Overton's life for years, personally and professionally.

After Overton had become a county judge in Pinellas County, a lawyer cited a case penned by his father, when Ben Overton was a Florida Supreme Court justice, involving the use of breath-measuring devices in drunken driving cases.

Overton was with his father in Gainesville over Christmas when Ben Overton underwent open-heart surgery on Dec. 27. Though Ben Overton had retired from the state Supreme Court in 1999, he was still teaching constitutional law at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law, and he made sure he graded his students' papers before the procedure.

Two days later, Ben Overton died from complications. He was 86.

"Anyone who emulated him certainly had big shoes to fill," William Overton said. "I felt that most of my life."

Today, Ben Overton will be laid to rest at the Royal Palm Cemetery in St. Petersburg. He was remembered in a memorial service in Gainesville, and on Monday he lay in state at the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee.

Gov. Reubin Askew, who appointed him to the Florida Supreme Court in 1974, spoke during the two-hour ceremony at the capitol.

Ben Overton was the first justice appointed under the state merit retention system. Before that system was enacted, prospective justices had to run for office, just like circuit and county judges do today.

The new system was designed to take the politics and money out of the selection process. Once he was appointed, Ben Overton did a lot to make the judicial system more transparent by, among other things, working to allow cameras in Florida courtrooms.

He also penned more than 1,400 opinions during his 25-year tenure as a justice. One of the more noteworthy ones ensured marital assets were distributed equally during a divorce, his son said.

In St. Petersburg, Ben Overton got involved in the Boy Scouts, encouraging William to become an Eagle Scout. And during the 10 years he served as a circuit judge in Pinellas, he taught at Stetson University College of Law, much in the same way his son teaches at St. Petersburg College these days.

Father and son also served as reservists in the U.S. Army. Ben Overton's 231st Transportation Company, then based in St. Petersburg, was called up during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Son William was called up during Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 1990s.

Despite his father's influence, though, the younger Overton said he never intended to follow his father into the judiciary. In fact, he went to law school out of state at South Texas College Law School in an effort to step out of his father's rather large shadow.

Ultimately, he decided to become a judge because it seemed like a natural progression after he had worked as a prosecutor in Pinellas.

If there was anything his father handed down to his children, it was the importance of public service. Ben Overton's other son, Robert, works for the state, and his daughter, Catherine, was a schoolteacher.

"Some people earn respect from their positions," Overton said. "He earned respect by his actions."


sthompson@tampatrib.com (727) 215-6504

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