By: Melanie Kalmanson
One of the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society’s (“the Society”) most prized possessions are belongings of past Justices that the Society has received through donation or otherwise. This year, the Society received a generous donation of items that belonged to the late Justice Ellis.
William Hull Ellis grew up in Quincy, Florida, and was admitted to The Florida Bar in 1889. Before being elected to the Florida Supreme Court less than twenty years later, Ellis served as State Auditor and Attorney General for the State of Florida. In January 1915, at the age of 47, Ellis was elected as a Justice on the Florida Supreme Court.
Justice Ellis leaves many legacies. Notably, he contributed to founding the Florida Bar Association in 1907, and one of his dissenting opinions foreshadowed what would become gender equality. In his 1924 dissenting opinion in State v. Daniel, 99 So. 804 (Fla. 1924), Ellis wrote:
In view of the Nineteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution there exists no principle in government upon which women, as a class, may be excluded from service as governmental officers. . . . Eligibility to office does not rest upon considerations of sex, nor does woman’s qualifications for public service rest upon any assumed spiritual endowments, or beauty of soul, nor peculiar faculty for discerning the distinctions, with clearer perception between right and wrong than her male compatriot. As a qualified member of the electorate she is, so far as constitutional, logical, legal, physical, moral, and intellectual inhibitions are concerned, free and qualified to become an official of the government in any of its branches; and being so qualified her activities cannot be limited to that sphere of infiuence [sic] to which she may be assigned by her generous but mistaken fellow citizens of the male persuasion.Id. at 811 (Ellis, J., dissenting). Criticizing the law’s distinction between men and women in Daniel, Ellis applied an analysis similar to what later became the framework applied to equal protection claims:
Qualifications, in addition to those of citizenship and age, may be prescribed by the Legislature for holding public office, but there must be some relation between the qualifications prescribed and the duties to be performed. . . .There is no text-book or decision quoted or cited in support of the assertion that sex may constitute the basis of a classification of persons, who possess the qualifications for office, for the purpose of limiting the number of either class that may participate in the discharge of governmental duties and the exercise of sovereign power. Just what are the ‘inherent differences between men and women immutably fixed by nature,’ when considered in reference to capacity for, or efficiency in, the discharge of the duties of a public office, we are not advised. Yet, a constitutional executive power is taken away and the act justified by an assertion supported by no precedent, principle, nor theory in governmental science, nor judicial utterance.
Aside from mere sex differences, what are the ‘inherent differences between men and women immutably fixed by nature’ which in the interests of government and public welfare should be considered to the end that there must be a predominance of one sex over the other in certain activities of government which may be classed under the head of human or community ‘welfare’? If woman possesses any quality of spirit or mind not possessed by the male (I do not use the overworked and meaningless phrase ‘heart or brain’ for reasons that are well understood), that peculiarly fits her for membership on ‘welfare’ boards over her male fellow citizens, it would seem to be inconsistent to restrict her influence and atrophy her good qualities by limiting her opportunities for a full and complete exercise of them.
Nor do I understand what is meant by the words: The act ‘recognizes political equalities imposed by law upon men and women, and qualifies both men and women electors for appointment.’ The political equality of men and women was recognized and imposed by the Nineteenth Amendment. It did not require an act of the Legislature to render that recognition efficient or to establish her political status as one qualified to hold office.
Id. (emphasis added); see U.S. v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, n.4 (1938).
While on the Court, Justice Ellis served two terms as Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court from 1927 through 1929 and 1937-1938. He served as a Justice on the Court through his retirement in 1938 due to ill health. Justice Ellis died at his home in Quincy, Florida, in 1948.
In January 2018, Justice Ellis’s granddaughter, a resident of Jacksonville, Florida, generously donated many of Ellis’s belongings to the Society. A highlight of the donation is approximately 100 pages of a typewritten memoir of Justice Ellis’s life and family history, which includes scrapbook pages of newspaper articles that feature Justice Ellis. Also included in the donation was a ceremonial gavel that was given to Justice Ellis in 1920 when he served as President of the Florida Bar Association.
Since receiving the donation of items that belonged to Justice Ellis, the Society is working with the Florida Supreme Court’s archivist, Erik Robinson, to catalog the items into the Supreme Court Library’s archival collection. Ultimately, the items will be available to researchers at the library. Eventually, the goal is for these items and others to be available worldwide through the Court’s web page. Donations like the one recently received by Justice Ellis’s family allow the Society to preserve the rich history and tradition of the Supreme Court of Florida and its Justices—past and present.
The Historical Society is always in search of historical significant documents from past Florida Supreme Court Justices that may be collecting dust in a relative’s closet or attic somewhere. If you know of documents that should be considered for preservation, contact the Society’s executive director Mark Miller at 850/385-3098 or Mark.Miller@FlCourtHistory.org