Sandy D’Alemberte: A legal giant who fought for the little guys

Sandy D'Alemberte. Florida archives photo

On the day former Florida State University President Talbot “Sandy’’ D’Alemberte died, a young lawyer named Jose Godinez-Samperio learned he had just won an appeal on behalf of 17-year-old woman who had been facing jail.

Godinez-Samperio was one of thousands of young “dreamers’’ brought to this country by his parents when he was 9 years old.  He wanted to become a lawyer, but Florida law did not allow any person here illegally to take the state bar exam or get a license to practice.  That’s where D’Alemberte came in.

Working without charging a fee, D’Alemberte got the Legislature to approve a bill that would allow Godinez-Samperio and other dreamers awaiting citizenship to take the bar. He also convinced the Florida Supreme Court to admit Godinez-Samperio to the Florida Bar in 2011.  Now Godinez-Samperio is returning the favor, representing those in need, pro bono. He is now opening a multinational law firm with offices in Florida and Mexico.

It just one of many ways that D’Alemberte’s legacy is likely to play out as the future unfolds.  There are many others who benefitted from D’Alemberte’s willingness to take on the rich and powerful.

D’Alemberte died Monday, May 20 on his way back to Tallahassee after having a knee replacement at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. He was 85. His funeral will be at Ruby Diamond Concert Hall on the Florida State University campus at 2 p.m. Wednesday. D’Alemberte was president of FSU from 1994 to 2003 and before that, dean of the College of Law from 1984 to 1989.  He remained a professor at the Law School for the rest of his life.

His role in Florida’s legal and education communities was extensive.  As a lawyer, he successfully fought to allow cameras in courtrooms all over the state, making the Florida’s courts more accessible to citizens. From time to time, he represented newspapers and reporters who found themselves in need of a little First Amendment support. And there were many times when he went to battle with the Florida Legislature on behalf of ordinary citizens.

Among those remembering one of those battles in recent days was former Republican House Speaker Allan Bense of Panama City.

Bense had killed a bill that would have compensated Wilton Dedge, a Brevard County man who spent 22 years behind bars after being wrongfully convicted of rape.  Wilton Dedge was convicted by prosecutors who failed to consider DNA evidence left behind, but instead relied on an eyewitness account from the victim who saw Dedge in a convenience store and thought he looked like her rapist. It took Dedge eight years to get prosecutors to test the DNA — which had not been used at trial.

Bense said D’Alemberte and lobbyist Guy Spearman convinced him in 2006 that he was wrong to block passage of the bill. And Bense, citing his own “closed mindedness,’’ personally apologized to Dedge from the House speaker’s chair.

“My respect for Sandy was deep,’’ Bense said. “The world is a better place because of him.’’

Examples of D’Alemberte’s influence on public policy are legion: as a legislator he wrote the Florida constitutional amendment that reformed Florida courts into the system that exists today; as a lawyer he worked with the Innocence Project, a group that seeks to free those who have been wrongfully accused; as FSU President,he welcomed the birth of a new medical school, which is placing newly-trained doctors all over North Florida. He also handled FSU’s decision to take over the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.

As an aging part-time professor who also practiced law, he continued to take on worthy causes in courtrooms around the state. In Tallahassee, he represented former public officials who tried to force former Gov. Rick Scott to disclose his assets instead of hiding them behind a blind trust.

These are the kind of things D’Alemberte did, quietly lending a hand and his expertise to those who could not afford the high-priced lawyers and lobbyists who generally get action out of the courts and Legislature.

If you talk to those who worked with him in any capacity, you’ll find stories of young people who suddenly discovered how much he cared about them.

Lisa Gardner,  Program Coordinator at FSU, recalls days working in the president’s office at FSU while also working on an undergraduate degree.  It took her 12 years of working full time, getting married and having a baby before she got her degree in 1999. At commencement, D’Alemberte asked her to stand and recognized her for her achievement.

“It was unexpected and such an honor,’’ she recalled last week. “That’s just the type of person he was. Always mindful, always watching, but saying little…I am honored to have worked with him.’’

D’Alemberte grew up in a tightly segregated world, living in Tallahassee and on the grounds of the state mental hospital at Chattahoochee (his  father was a lawyer who represented several of the doctors at the hospital.) There, he saw first-hand the way the state handled patients at a time when advocates fought for more money and, as D’Alemberte said, the Legislature was “pretty neglectful.’’

He never hesitated to take on worthy causes when people needed legal assistance.  When an Emory University professor ran into trouble for speaking frankly, D’Alemberte was there, supporting free speech.

He continued representing Floridians who needed help long past the time when his physical health was good. The last case I watched him argue was in South Florida where he was defending former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s sister, Maggy Hurchalla.  She had been ordered to pay $4.4-million in what looks like a SLAP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuit. The development company that sued her when she criticized their plans for land in Martin County seized her 1974 Toyota truck and a kayak after the trial court verdict, rubbing in their victory.  D’Alemberte stepped in to handle the appeal.

D’Alemberte hobbled into the Fourth District Court of Appeal to defend Hurchalla in March.   He could barely walk.  Others had to help him travel between his seat in the courtroom and the podium, but he could still carry an argument in court.

We don’t know the result of that appeal yet.  But we do know how much D’Alemberte cared about helping a fellow Floridian take on a big developer who had sued an environmentalist and friend.

He was always willing to enter the arena.

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