By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — With a shock of white hair, a trademark bow tie and a soft, Southern drawl, Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte was a legal icon who influenced decades of Florida governance and was described Tuesday as a “force of nature.”
D’Alemberte, who died suddenly Monday at age 85, had a list of accomplishments — including serving as president of the American Bar Association, president of Florida State University and dean of the school’s College of Law — that were on par with a humanitarian legacy evidenced by the outpouring of affection and respect as news of his death spread.
“Sandy had the heart and soul of a public servant, and he had the courage and conviction of a warrior and a lawyer, and in between he was a friend to many, many people and changed many lives,” Martha Barnett, also a former American Bar Association president, said in a telephone interview.
D’Alemberte was a major force behind Florida’s broad open-government laws, was instrumental in revamping the state’s court system and played a significant role in efforts to clear prisoners who were wrongfully convicted.
“He loved the law. He loved the law. He loved the rule of law. He believed in its potential for transforming the world, for giving people better lives. And he took joy in the doing of the law. He took joy in the intellectual challenges, and he took joy in the colleagues,” D’Alemberte’s wife, Patsy Palmer, told The News Service of Florida. “His world metaphor, his hope, his passion, his tent was the law. And he was very, very good.”
D’Alemberte was a force to be reckoned with, even in his later years in life.
In 2014, D’Alemberte — a Democrat who served in the state House from 1966 to 1972 — convinced the Republican-controlled Legislature to change Florida laws so Jose Godinez-Samperio, the Mexican-born son of undocumented immigrants who was not a U.S. citizen, could become a lawyer.
“He’s a liberal Democrat, and he was able to convince one of the most conservative members of the Legislature to sponsor an amendment to allow an undocumented immigrant to become a member of The Florida Bar,” Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee lawyer and longtime friend of D’Alemberte, said in an interview. “He was a guiding light. He gave me hope. His idealism was contagious. He never gave up.”
An obituary posted on Florida State University’s website tagged D’Alemberte as “a brilliant legal mind and international champion of human rights” who was “the consummate Southern gentleman.” D’Alemberte served as the school’s president from 1994 to 2003.
“He’s been a friend, a mentor and an inspiration to me. He was a person of great integrity with an abiding sense of social justice who made a difference in people’s lives here and around the world through his defense of the First Amendment and advocacy of human rights,” FSU President John Thrasher, a Republican, wrote.
Throughout Tuesday, Floridians on both ends of the ideological spectrum lauded D’Alemberte on social media, in prepared statements and via email.
D’Alemberte was “a force of nature,” Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady, who served as a Republican state legislator and congressman, said in an email.
“His beneficial impact on Florida law is immeasurable. If I had to choose any one person as the most important mover and shaker behind Florida’s open government movement in the Twentieth Century, it would be Sandy D’Alemberte. He is the main reason Florida’s courts have been open to cameras for the last 40 years,” Canady said.
Lawyer John Stemberger, president of the conservative Florida Family Policy Council, also praised D’Alemberte as a role model.
“Sandy was a political liberal but a man who understood and lived out civility and collegiality. Something all of us can emulate,” Stemberger said on Twitter.
Jon Mills, a former state House speaker and onetime dean of the University of Florida College of Law, said he met D’Alemberte more than 40 years ago, when D’Alemberte chaired the Constitution Revision Commission.
“Not everybody is smart and creative and decent,” Mills, a Democrat, told the News Service. “He was the definition of a statesman. All of that elegance and intelligence and kindness was effortless, because that’s exactly who he was.”
Mills said he’s been teaching Florida constitutional law for 25 years.
“The Sandy D’Alemberte notes are in about every fifth case,” he said.
D’Alemberte died after passing out at a rest stop near Lake City, Palmer said. D’Alemberte, who recently underwent knee replacement surgery in Jacksonville, and Palmer were traveling back to their home in Tallahassee, she said. Emergency medical workers tried for 45 minutes to resuscitate D’Alemberte, but he died after being transported to a nearby hospital.
Palmer stressed that, at the time of his death, her husband was “the same Sandy that you met years ago.”
“Sandy lived fully up until the very, very end,” she said.
D’Alemberte spent the last days of his life anxiously checking the outcome of a legal battle and collaborating with others about a response to the Legislature’s handling of a constitutional amendment aimed at restoring voting rights to felons, Palmer recalled.
“He was full of ideas. He was courageous. He was happy. He was kind to people. He cared about people. He did not complain about situations. He was always trying to figure out how things could get better. And that did not go away,” Palmer said.