Florida Bar Foundation CEO Bruce Blackwell receives Tobias Simon Award
When Florida Bar Foundation CEO Bruce B. Blackwell accepted the 2016 Tobias Simon Award at the Florida Supreme Court Jan. 28, he shared The Florida Bar’s highest public service honor with all of those who endeavor to ensure justice for those least able to afford an attorney.
“I accept this award on behalf of all my brothers and sisters who toil daily as volunteers, as legal aid lawyers, paralegals, staff, court personnel and clerks who help pro se litigants and on behalf of the thousands of Floridians whose lives have been changed because a Florida lawyer cared –and cares – and will keep on caring,” Blackwell said.
He also recognized the contributions of each of the seven Florida Supreme Court justices and of Florida Bar leaders.
“This has been a watershed year in Florida for bringing the shortcomings of access to the fore under the enlightened leadership of Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and the prior stellar leadership of our bar, including Gwynne Young, Eugene Pettis, Greg Coleman and now President Ramon Abadin,” he said.
“The issue of access to the courts, as all recognize, is broader than a lawyer issue, but we, as lawyers, are and must be a catalyst for it. We need to effect a sea change in providing civil legal access not only to the three million Floridians presently living in poverty, but the almost 80 percent who cannot afford a lawyer’s services.”
Blackwell learned at an early age that “each of us possesses the power to change at least one life, if not many lives, through our actions,” as he wrote in his personal statement upon receiving the 2013 American Bar Association Pro Bono Publico Award. He and his brother were taken in by an aunt and uncle at the age of 11 after both of their parents died. He considers his aunt, Mattie Heagy, whose life he says “centered on service,” to be his mother.
When he became a lawyer, and throughout his career, he saw pro bono service as principal among his professional duties.
“With more than 40 years of pro bono service, Bruce Blackwell has not only provided direct representation of clients but also has recruited others to provide pro bono representation. Likewise, he has lobbied and strengthened and preserved the network of legal aid organizations serving the poor,” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said in his introduction.
“Beyond his work with the Foundation, Mr. Blackwell has donated thousands of hours of direct pro bono services. He has consistently and successfully handled cases that are complex, contentious and even controversial. The Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association has a knack for handing Blackwell its difficult cases.”
Senior Judge Emerson R. Thompson Jr., immediate past president of The Florida Bar Foundation, said Blackwell is “the epitome of the servant leader.”
“Throughout his professional and personal life he has always used his skills as an attorney to help the underserved,” Thompson said. “He has donated his talents, time and money to help others without fanfare. He truly believes that the life he lives speaks for him. Sir Winston Churchill wrote: ‘We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.’ He was talking about Bruce.”