Lansing C. Scriven will be the Hillsborough County Bar Association's first black president.
Lansing C. Scriven will be the Hillsborough County Bar Association's first black president.
By David R. Corder
Lansing C. Scriven understands the significance of being first. His father, Charles Scriven, was Jacksonville's first black police chief. About 16 years ago, the son became the first black attorney at the predecessor of Tampa's Trenam Kemker Scharf Barkin Frye O'Neill & Mullis PA. Six years later, the firm made him its first black partner. Now that legacy is about to take on even greater local historic significance.
Just recently, members of the Hillsborough County Bar Association elected Scriven, 41, as its 2004-05 president-elect. (William J. Schifino Jr. is the new president.) That makes Scriven next in line as the nonprofit group's president. He will be the first black president in the 108-year history of the association and its predecessor.
"It really is historic, when you consider the history of African Americans in the bar association," says association president Marian McCulloch. "Especially given now as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (the U.S. Supreme Court's precedent-setting school desegregation decision) and the dedication this year of the new Hillsborough courthouse in honor of (the late) Judge George Edgecomb, the county's first black judge, it's poignant that Lanse would become president-elect of the bar association this year."
Yet, Scriven's election also draws critical attention to another time in the association's past.
"Citing bar association history, it was not until 1971 that the bar association changed its name to the Hillsborough County Bar Association," says McCulloch, an Allen Dell PA family law attorney. "It was only then that the provision in the charter that excluded blacks from membership was removed."
It may appear the Hillsborough association is slow to assimilate, but even the Florida Bar has yet to elect a black president. Of all licensed attorneys in Florida, only about 2% of them are of African American heritage.
But the Florida Bar is not alone. Neither the St. Petersburg nor the Clearwater bar associations has elected a black president.
Despite the historic significance locally, Scriven certainly won't be the first black president of a local bar association in Florida. In July, Reginald Luster takes over as the first black president of the Jacksonville Bar Association.
To Scriven, however, the election has less to do with racial significance than it does with his years of volunteer work on behalf of the association. The election, he says, is about his willingness to do the best possible job he can for the membership. Obviously, he wants to improve minority participation. Otherwise, he says, his election is just another step in his professional growth as an attorney.
"I think how you measure progress is whether this is a lasting legacy," he says. "Let's look back 10 years from now and see if anything changed as a result of my election. I hope after the year I spend as president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association that the association will be a better association than when I took office."
It's hard to miss Scriven even in a crowd; he walks tall at 6-foot-4. A charismatic smile accompanies his firm handshake. He responds to questions in a soft-spoken and articulate manner. Those who know him describe him in terms of integrity and honesty.
"He's his own man, and he's a very good one," says Trenam Kemker partner Marvin Barkin, who Scriven calls a mentor. "He's intelligent, able, motivated, extremely ethical. He has all the factors put together that make a decent lawyer.
"You've focused on a very good man," he adds. "It's an honor for this association to see him move up."
Scriven attributes much of his success to his father and mother, Jeannetta. Besides his police work, the father served as a Baptist minister. The mother taught in Jacksonville's public schools. He proudly proclaims that his parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary earlier this month.
"There are no finer human beings I know," Scriven says. "I give them credit for two things: first, introducing me to the importance of a relationship with God; and second, the importance of always doing my best. They're tremendous role models."
Yet, it was Scriven's wife, federal Magistrate Judge Mary Scriven, who influenced his decision to study law. She was the first female he met as an undergraduate student at Duke University.
Although he had no aspiration then to study law, she did. Once they earned their degrees, the couple enrolled at the Florida State University College of Law.
"Mary had an influence," he says. "In her case, she always had an interest (in law) going into college."
During the first semester of the first year in law school, Scriven's father encouraged the young law students to meet with a friend - now-retired U.S. Circuit Judge Joseph Hatchett of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. A Jacksonville native, Hatchett was the first black Florida Supreme Court justice.
The three met one afternoon, and they talked for hours late into the evening. "I was so impressed," Scriven recalls. "Here was a federal judge who took that much time for two first-year law students."
The meeting with Hatchett coincided with a problematic time for Scriven. He had trouble grasping the topic of personal jurisdiction in his civil procedure class.
"(Hatchett) explained it in a way that when I left that evening the subject matter made perfect sense to me," Scriven recalls. "From that day forward I decided I wanted to learn more about the person."
Upon earning a law degree in 1987, Scriven clerked for Hatchett. "He gave me an incentive to work hard in law school, because federal appellate clerkships are very competitive," he adds.
During the last two years of law school, Scriven attracted the attention of the partners at the Trenam Kemker predecessor. He spent two summers as a clerk with the firm.
Meanwhile, he and Mary pursued job opportunities throughout the state. The couple decided on Tampa when Trenam Kemker offered him a job and Carlton Fields PA offered her a job.
At Trenam Kemker, he focused on litigation, primarily business litigation, which he still focuses on today as a solo practitioner. Over the next six years, Scriven litigated far from the public record for private clients. In 1994, the firm's leadership recognized his work by awarding him a partnership.
"I pride myself on doing my best, and I handle each client's case as if it's the most significant case, because for them it is," he says. "Most civil business matters, I think, can be resolved short of a full-blow trial, and the reality of today's market is it's very expensive to try cases."
While still at the law firm, Scriven took on what he considers one of his toughest but most rewarding challenges. The late Stephen Goldstein, one of his law school professors, asked him to represent a death row inmate, Clarence Jackson. The firm accepted appellate review on a pro bono basis and even assigned other members of the firm to work with Scriven.
"The challenging part is you have someone's life in your hands, pure and simple," he says. "The ultimate deprivation of liberty is having your life taken away."
Soon after the firm took the case, Scriven says, the governor signed a death warrant. "That's when the real pressure began," he adds.
The appellate team attacked Jackson's sentence on two issues: diminished mental capacity and inefficient trial counsel. They prevailed, when Hillsborough prosecutors agreed to support a commuted sentence of life imprisonment. It took the better part of a year from start to finish.
"In retrospect, it was certainly more (of a challenge) than I anticipated in terms of work and out of pocket expense to the firm," Scriven says. "It's nice to be able to prevail in a business matter, but to sit down in a jail cell and tell someone their life will be spared brings a satisfaction that is hard to replicate in any other context."
About the same time he became a Trenam Kemker partner, Scriven took on another challenge. Barkin encouraged him to accept an assignment as special counsel to the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, an independent constitutional agency that investigates judicial misconduct. Scriven still maintains that work relationship even though he resigned from Trenam Kemker in 2000 to form his own practice.
"I don't think there is anything more important than an independent, fair and impartial judiciary," Scriven says. "The role of the commission is to ensure the public's perception of the judiciary is one of impartiality and independence."
Since accepting his first assignment in 1994, Scriven says he has worked on at least a dozen investigations. He serves in a prosecutorial role if the commission's investigative panel finds probable cause that a judge violated the judicial code of conduct.
Two of Scriven's most recent JQC cases involved judicial assertion of 1st Amendment rights during election campaigns. The Florida Supreme Court action more clearly defined the limitations of judicial conduct in the state's judicial elections.
The charges Scriven brought against Matt McMillan resulted in his removal in August 2001 as a Manatee County judge (797 So. 2nd 560). The Florida Supreme Court agreed with Scriven's arguments that McMillan made explicit campaign promises to favor the state and police in court proceedings, made promises he would side against the defense, made unfounded attacks on the incumbent county judge (George Brown), made unfounded attacks on the local court system and local officials and improperly presided over a court case in which he had a direct conflict of interest.
While the McMillan case offers a guide for judicial campaign conduct in Florida, Scriven was thrust somewhat into the national spotlight in his prosecution of Escambia County Judge Patricia Kinsey.
Out of 11 alleged ethical violations, the Florida Supreme Court found Kinsey guilty in January last year of violating nine (842 So. 2nd 77). Those violations included charges she distributed campaign literature that promised law enforcement she would put " 'criminals where they belong ¦ behind bars,' as opposed to simply pledging or promising the faithful and impartial performance of your duties in office ¦" the court stated.
"The opinion of the Florida Supreme Court (in Kinsey) is a crucial one," acknowledges Barkin, who served as co-counsel with Scriven in that case.
Upset with the ruling, however, Kinsey appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation's highest court quashed her hopes for a reversal in October last year, when it denied a writ of certiorari. The court made its decision on the brief Scriven submitted.
"Lansing is primarily responsible for the brief," Barkin says.
The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Kinsey case (02-1855) relates to the high court's precedent-setting decision in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, Minnesota Board of Judicial Standards, et al (536 U.S. 765). The high court reversed a lower court decision that upheld prohibitions on judicial speech on controversial legal or political issues.
As part of its Judicial Independence Series, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law recently published an analysis that talked about Kinsey in relation to White (www.brennancenter.org). The article explained how Kinsey's actions fell outside the threshold of the Supreme Court decision in White.
"Essentially (the Florida Supreme Court) found that (Kinsey's) campaign was tantamount to a pledge to rule in favor of law enforcement in criminal cases," Scriven says. "So this is a very important case in terms of giving guidance to the judicial candidates, concerning the boundaries of ethical campaign statements. Obviously, the decisions in McMillan and Kinsey will be longstanding."
Since the early '90s, Scriven has devoted considerable time to pro bono activities.
One of his first assignments was as chair of the Hillsborough association's People's Law School Program. In 1996-97, he was chair of the association's Gender, Ethnic and Racial Bias Committee. Since 2001, he has served on the association's board of directors.
Besides those contributions, Scriven also served three terms from 1992 to 1995 as president of the George E. Edgecomb Bar Association, the local association for black lawyers and judges.
At the national level, he also served a term from 1998-99 as president of the Florida chapter of the National Bar Association, an association for black lawyers.
In 1999-2000, Scriven served as chair of the business litigation committee of the business law section of the Florida Bar.
It was this natural progression and urging of the bar leadership that encouraged him to run for president-elect.
"Most things I get involved in I don't get involved to ascend to a leadership position," he says. "But I try to get involved in things I enjoy, and I think if you enjoy things you do a better job. People take note of that. Sometimes it leads to you being involved in leadership."
Scriven says his greatest concern as a leader is the public image of the legal profession. He wants to continue programs that teach the public about the role of the legal profession and diminish the negative perception people get from the mass media. But he also thinks the local association needs to assert a stronger voice.
"Although we have traditionally deferred to the Florida Bar to serve as our voice on most of these core issues, the time has arrived for local bar associations to become more proactive in educating our members and the public concerning these issues," he declared in a campaign statement.
Such an expression of leadership largely accounts for why Barkin and McCulloch endorsed Scriven's unopposed candidacy for president-elect. At least in recent years, most of the local association's candidates for president-elect run unopposed except for a few write-in candidates.
"It's been pretty common as an unopposed position," McCulloch says. "Most people work their way up the rank and serve a number of years on the board before they take on that position."
McCulloch has known Scriven since she became friends with his wife in the '90s through the Hillsborough Association for Women Lawyers.
"It couldn't be a better person to serve than Lanse Scriven," McCulloch says. "But this is a big step forward for the African American legal community."
Only McCulloch wishes the integration had occurred sooner. "Back 10 years ago, if we had 50 African American members of the (local) bar association I would be surprised," she says. "The opportunities were not there to have a community with the black bar."
A proponent of minority diversification, McCulloch laments that it has taken so long for the association to recruit and encourage minorities who possess leadership skills. She partly attributes that to the difficulties of changing out-dated institutional thinking in the Tampa area community.
"When you consider it wasn't until 1971 that the charter was changed, I think that's indicative of the mindset of the community at the institutional level," she says. "Institutional change has been slow in our community. And as much as I've experienced bias, I have never experienced the type of bias that African Americans experience in their community.
"So when you've got only a small group of individuals in a minority group, you get excited to get people of the Scrivens' caliber to serve in a leadership positions," she adds.
And McCulloch says she hopes Scriven is about take on the same historic presence as other local black attorneys such as Edgecomb; Justice Peggy Quince, the Tampa attorney who became the first black woman justice on the Florida Supreme Court; and state Rep. Arthenia L. Joyner, a pioneering Tampa attorney who championed the cause of civil rights in the late 1960s.
"But the color issue is not even an issue with Lanse," McCulloch adds. "He's a fine person to serve as a president. You couldn't have a better person to serve."
Lansing C. Scriven
Firm: Lansing C. Scriven PA
Personal: Married 16 years in July to federal Magistrate Judge Mary Scriven. They are the parents of three children, Tyler, 21, Jessica, 13, and Charles, 5. Tyler is a senior at the University of Virginia-Charlottesville.
Education: BA, public policy, 1983, Duke University; JD, 1987, Florida State University College of Law.
Career: Law clerk, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1988, he joined the predecessor of Trenam Kemker Scharf Barkin Frye O'Neill & Mullis PA and stayed with the firm until he formed his own law practice in 2000.
Favorite place: At home in his study.
Favorite place to eat: Lola Jane's, South Tampa, a Cajun-style restaurant.
Last book read for relaxation: "Clients for Life," by Jadish Sheath and Andrew Sobel.