Judge Williams’ Actions Helped Build Bridges

by Tom Tryon, Posted Jun 23, 2019 at 6:23 AM Herald Tribune.

Judge Charles Williams

Judges in our parts tend to avoid the limelight, which is probably a good thing for everyone. Their ability to comment on cases is strictly limited by ethical codes, and the potential for conflicts of interest restricts certain forms of interaction.

Judges fiercely protect their independence and they know that, locally at least, they don’t receive much public attention unless something goes awry.

But as chief judge of the 12th Judicial Circuit for a pair of consecutive, two-year terms that end this month, Charles Williams assumed a prominent role in public affairs.

There were some contentious moments during his tenure as chief judge — the judiciary’s response to reporting that alleged racial bias in sentencing; a dust-up with the Sarasota County sheriff over courthouse security — but Williams focused most of his energy on building bridges.

Williams was active, but not an activist, in promoting racial and ethnic diversity in the legal community, and he worked diligently to advance education about the law throughout the community, especially in schools with significant numbers of students from racial minorities.

As a result of elections and gubernatorial appointments, the judiciary in the 12th Circuit — Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties — has reached an admirable gender balance. But the bench is not diversified racially or ethnically.

Williams, who was appointed in 1998 by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, and Circuit Judge Rochelle Curley, who was elected in 2006, are the only two African Americans among the 31 judges in the circuit. Maria Ruhl, elected last year, is the first and only Hispanic 12th Circuit judge.

Williams has long provided community service — and other judges do as well — but as chief judge he acted, spoke, taught and wrote eloquently about the impacts of race and racism on justice and the judicial system.

He played key roles in the stunning We Are Sarasota event, which celebrated the progress of not only black Americans but other people of color and gays. He partnered with Florida Studio Theatre to present plays and discussions about race, and pushed the Sarasota County Bar Association’s Diversity Committee to live up to its name.

Raised in St. Petersburg by teachers, Williams espoused education — as a means of upward mobility and as a way to inform young people, in particular, about our nation’s complete history and the potential for the law to promote and protect freedom.

Respectful of his colleagues, he managed to provide his unique perspective in this circuit forthrightly yet modestly — offering a voice that needed to be heard.