TALLAHASSEE – Florida Supreme Court Justice R. Fred Lewis was inducted into the inaugural class of the Army’s National Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) Hall of Fame last month, joining more than 300 other dignitaries who earned their commission through the ROTC.
Lewis was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1998 by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles. From 2006 to 2008, Lewis served as chief justice, the highest judicial officer in the state. During his tenure, he founded Justice Teaching, a statewide program designed to promote an understanding of Florida’s justice system and laws in the schools.
In 2014, he received the prestigious Justice Sandra Day O'Connor national award for his work with Justice Teaching, joining his list of other achievements, which include Florida’s Citizen of the Year in 2001, the Order of World Wars Superior Achievement Honor for graduating as the top student in the University of Miami ROTC program, and the Williams Memorial Outstanding Athlete Award.
U.S. Army Major General Peggy Coombs wrote to Lewis, informing him of his induction into the Hall of Fame. The letter said, “As your achievements exemplify ‘Leadership Excellence,’ you deserve this recognition.”
“The award came out of left field, but it is an honor,” Lewis told the Florida Record. “I was unable to go to Fort Knox to participate, because I was hearing oral arguments.”
Lewis didn’t set out to become a judge.
“I didn’t think I would have the financial capacity to seek a professional career," he said.
He was born in Beckley, West Virginia to a family who made their living in the coal mines. Florida Southern College (FSC) offered him a full scholarship, which he accepted. He excelled in college, earning top honors in academics and athletics.
After graduation from FSC, Lewis attended the University of Miami School of Law, where he became involved in ROTC, again earning top honors in his class. He graduated third in his law school class, was a member of the University of Miami Law Review and selected for the Iron Arrow Honor Society.
Following law school, he was in private practice until his appointment to the Supreme Court.
“People asked me to consider becoming a judge," he said. "I loved lawyering.”
As a judge, Lewis has also attempted to provide more public access to justice for the disabled. He mandated a task force of Florida’s court facilities to identify and remove barriers to the court’s facilities. As chief justice, he also instituted “a uniform high-level diversity training program for all Florida judges.” He has also used his background in civil litigation to improve jury instructions in complex cases.
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Defense Act, which created the ROTC as it is known today. According to the Army, approximately 70 percent of the second lieutenants who enlist in the Army, the Army National Guard and the Army Reserve are commissioned through the ROTC program. During the last 100 years, the ROTC program has minted more than 1 million lieutenants.
Gen. Colin Powell and Gen. George C. Marshall were two of the other 326 individuals inducted into the National Hall of Fame along with Lewis.