ORLANDO – Nurse by profession, community activist by nature, Sharon Middleton will have much to offer the Florida Bar when she joins its board of governors at the Bar’s June 17 annual convention as a public member.
With a bachelor of science in nursing from Emory University and an master of science in health education from Florida State University, as well as a strong family history of ties to the profession, Middleton, a native of Jacksonville in Duval County and current resident of Ponte Vedra Beach, comes to the role naturally with her combined legal and medical backgrounds.
As a health educator, Middleton specializes in advocacy, care coordination, curriculum design, leadership development and corporate wellness. Her focus has been on Florida’s aging population and empowering senior citizens to maintain their independence and quality of life. Having identified access to justice as an issue she hopes to address during her tenure, she said that a majority of Floridians can’t afford proper help in the legal system.
Middleton currently assists a separate group called The Florida Bar’s Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC); and from 2013 to 2015 she also served on the Unlicensed Practice of Law Committee – an arm of the court established by the Florida Bar under the direction of the state Supreme Court.
Eminent Florida attorney Bruce Blackwell, CEO and executive director of The Florida Bar Foundation, strongly supports her appointment. Often asked for references, Blackwell, himself a longtime VIP, told the Florida Record that when Middleton approached him for endorsement, his immediate response was “Hell, yeah.”
There was no hesitation.
“The bottom line is that Sharon is this incredibly wonderfully generous, nice person,” Blackwell told the Florida Record.
Middleton’s background and path appeared to point her in this direction from the get-go. Not only were her parents role models for involvement in the legal field, but other family members are lawyers as well, Blackwell said.
Sharon’s father, the late Eddie Booth, was a legendary criminal defense lawyer from Jacksonville from whom Sharon learned much about Florida’s legal culture.
“Some years ago, Sharon’s dad and my firm were in a high profile case in Orlando, and it is from that work that I got to know Eddie Booth,” said Blackwell, a former trial lawyer. “I don’t think he ever lost a case – he was that good a lawyer.”
Moreover, Middleton’s mother Bonnie Booth served for eight years on the Judicial Qualifications Commission, a group that evaluates those judges who overstep their bounds – or who aren’t providing the best judgment, so to speak.
The Florida Bar Foundation and the Florida Bar Board of Governors (BOG) are two distinct entities with somewhat overlapping names. What is the relationship between the two factions?
“We came out of the bosom of the Bar,” Blackwell explained. “We are the Florida Bar’s charitable arm; we are separate but closely related by mission.”
Potential BOG public members are not actually selected by higher-ups; instead, they self-nominate and undergo an application process. While BOG attorney members include Florida’s most powerful lawyers, public members comprise people with strong reputations traditionally from diverse backgrounds.
“The kind of people that we’ve had go into those positions include a variety,” Blackwell stated. “We had a police chief from St. Petersburg most recently; we’ve had educators – deans of colleges sat on the board of governors in the past – and bankers.”
Indicating it more or less as the holy grail of resume builders in the legal field, Blackwell said, “It is – candidly – an exceedingly prestigious position because there are only two of them. When they talk, the board listens – because they are not lawyers. And so it’s a big deal.”
Generally, the Florida Supreme Court appoints one-third of the foundation members for two-year terms, while the remaining two-thirds are appointed by the BOG itself.
“Quite frankly, all the finalists would be wonderful,” he said. Other contenders this year were former investigative reporter Judy Doyle from Orlando and St. Petersburg College professor Herbert Polson.
Numerous official activities are planned alongside Middleton’s swearing-in at the annual convention slated for June 15 through June 18 at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek in Disney Springs.
Among them are continuing education seminars, quarterly meetings, and award dinners. Additionally, convention organizers will sponsor moot court and trial competitions for law students, technology programs and a judicial luncheon.
The board of governors, president and president-elect will be sworn in by the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court. The General Assembly will present several additional as yet unannounced awards, and the Young Lawyers Division officers and board will take their oaths as well.
While the convention lasts Wednesday through Saturday, Middleton will likely take her star turn that Friday morning. Speakers tend to include politically connected Florida citizens; one year featured Julie Eisenhower, for example.
Not all who are sworn in actually make remarks, but “it’s a huge deal,” said Blackwell. And while board of governors attorney members pay their own convention expenses, the Florida Bar covers all costs for the non-lawyer public members.
Francine Walker, who serves as the Florida Bar’s Director of Public Information & Bar Services stated that the BOG meets six times annually at various locations statewide.
“The overall purpose is to have public involvement in the organization,” Walker told the Florida Record. In addition to public members on this board, non-lawyer members also sit on several other committees, she said.
Both Middleton and Lawrence Worley Tyree – the other current nonpublic member – as well as Middleton’s predecessor, St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, happened to serve on the Citizens Advisory Committee prior to their appointments, although CAC service is not actually an official prerequisite, said Walker.
Approximately one-third of the governors change annually; two years is the term length for both attorneys and public members, with no limits on the number of terms a public member can serve.
“We have a lot of phenomenal leaders in Orlando,” said Blackwell, adding that the board is strengthened is over its lifetime by the influx of rotating attorney members. “The more people the better,” he said.
Middleton will be a full-fledged member of the board, expected to attend all meetings and serve on committees within the Bar. Her opinion will be valued, said Blackwell, and if she wishes to promote some particular position, she can certainly do so.
Middleton inherits the reins from her mentor with a platform to address an estimated 80 percent of Floridians’ needs, just as he once did. Whereas Blackwell once sought to help the 80 percent who could not afford legal care, Middleton aims to aid those who can’t afford health care.
Thanks to both, the “other 80 percent” will have benefited greatly over the long term.