By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Eminent Tallahassee lawyer and civic leader Steve Uhlfelder had to stand by while the Florida Bar hounded his son Daniel, like him a vocal critic of Gov. Ron DeSantis, about alleged ethical lapses.
Others spoke out. Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice R. Fred Lewis trashed the Bar’s case against Daniel Uhlfelder.
“The Florida Bar should not discipline a critic of the Governor … for calling into question the decisions the Governor has made,” Lewis said in an affidavit he filed in September 2021.
Finally a Bar grievance committee suggested, and the Florida Bar Board of Governors agreed, that Daniel Uhlfelder could take an ethics refresher course and avoid discipline. This easy resolution appeared within reach when the Uhlfelders got some alarming news.
They learned the Florida Supreme Court had sent Daniel’s case back to the grievance committee for reconsideration. The justices obviously wanted to inflict more trouble on this lawyer who dared to sue DeSantis over his COVID policy and, when he lost in the trial court, had the audacity to mount an appeal.
On Feb. 4, 2023, Uhlfelder found out his ordeal had entered a new phase. He would remain stuck in the career limbo where a Tallahassee appellate court had cast him two years before.
AN INEXPLICABLE ACT
A week later, his father took his own life.
Reports from the Walton County Sheriff’s Office and the county medical examiner establish that Steve Uhlfelder, 76, was found dying from a gunshot wound beside his white SUV and a few blocks from his Santa Rosa Beach home. Deputies recovered a Taurus revolver and one spent bullet casing.
“Don’t let the Bar & courts get you down,” he wrote in his last note to his son.
Publicly the Uhlfelders attributed their patriarch’s death to his Parkinson’s disease “and other health issues.”
Steve Uhlfelder had a history of depression, which doesn’t answer the question of why he took his life. Experts agree no single event or factor can explain an act of suicide; it defies the logic of cause and effect.
Six months later, Daniel Uhlfelder’s lawyers quoted his father’s final words to him in a letter to Florida Bar Counsel Olivia Klein. They were responding to the second grievance committee go-round.
“The last two (2) plus years have been very painful, both personally and professionally, for Daniel Uhlfelder,” says the Aug. 15 letter from Scott Tozian of Smith, Tozian, Daniel & Davis in Tampa.
Things only got worse. The same grievance committee reviewing the same evidence somehow found probable cause to charge Uhlfelder with violating rules related to misconduct, dishonesty and actions “prejudicial to the administration of justice.”
The allegations boil down to this: Uhlfelder failed to properly inform the 1st District Court of Appeal that two lawyers who’d worked with him on his trial court case against DeSantis had no role in the appeal.
Curiously, that wasn’t the issue Judges Bradford Thomas, Adam Tanenbaum and Susan Kelsey identified when they referred Uhlfelder to Bar regulators in a scathing opinion. He “undoubtedly used this court merely as a stage from which to act out [his] version of political theater,” the ruling says. “This was unprofessional and an abuse of the judicial process.”
NEXT UP: REFEREE HEARING
In an Oct. 6 notice, Klein, the Bar counsel, hinted to Uhlfelder that he could make the disciplinary case go away by pleading guilty to minor misconduct.
If he persists, he must contend with a Supreme Court dominated by DeSantis appointees. On Jan. 25, Chief Justice Carlos Muniz set the stage for a referee hearing in Uhlfelder’s case. He could still be disciplined; possible sanctions range from a reprimand to disbarment.
And a judge in Uhlfelder’s home circuit is monitoring the Bar proceedings. If he loses there, Santa Rosa County Circuit Judge Scott Duncan may decide to hold him in criminal contempt, punishable by a possible fine or jail time.
That’s because of a word bomb the 1st DCA panel planted right after the judges referred Uhlfelder for discipline in February 2021. They took the extraordinary step of ordering Walton County State Attorney Ginger Madden to file a criminal contempt charge against him.
Duncan put the criminal case on hold until the Bar finishes with Uhlfelder. Then the judge can detonate the 1st DCA’s bomb – or defuse it – whichever he pleases.
BIPARTISAN PUBLIC SERVANT
Steve Uhlfelder’s death inspired an outpouring of tributes. He was, by all accounts, a successful lawyer who considered public service, especially education, part of his job description.
Uhlfelder chaired both the Board of Regents for Florida’s state university system and the global Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. He was executive director of Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission at its inception in 1977.
His public service was bipartisan, though he was known as a Democratic political insider. President George W. Bush honored Uhlfelder with a national “Point of Light” award; President Barack Obama named him to an education policy committee.
When the national media zeroed in on Florida’s crucial role in the 2000 presidential election, NBC, ABC and Fox News turned to Uhlfelder for on-air commentary.
The Holocaust was one of his abiding interests – understandably, given Uhlfelder family history.
His paternal grandparents perished at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. They had sent their son Willie to America in 1934, when he was 18.
Willie Uhlfelder made his way from Ellis Island to Atlanta and from there to Tallahassee before settling in West Palm Beach. He became the city’s first Jewish commissioner.
His son Steve helped launch the Florida State University Holocaust Institute for high school teachers. He started a Holocaust writing scholarship program at his law firm, Holland and Knight.
FATHER AND SON STYLES
Uhlfelder lobbied successfully for legislation to build a Holocaust Memorial in the state Capitol courtyard. The project stalled.
Days before his death, he told the Tallahassee Democrat “six years is a damn long time to build a $400,000 structure to recognize 6 million killed.”
The DeSantis administration “spent four times as much money sending immigrants to Massachusetts,” he said. He referred to an incident in September 2022 when the governor had about 50 South American refugees flown from San Antonio, TX, to Martha’s Vineyard and dumped there.
Uhlfelder was proud of his son Daniel, who put on a Grim Reaper costume and strode across beaches at the height of the COVID pandemic. He said he wanted to focus attention on saving lives and away from playing politics.
Steve Uhlfelder told journalist Lucy Morgan he would have taken a different approach, but timing is everything.
“He’s more aggressive than I would be, but I lived in a more balanced world than we have now,” Morgan quoted Uhlfelder in a column she wrote for Florida Phoenix.
“He really believes he is on the right side of this issue,” Daniel’s father said. “He’s more of a risk taker than I am, but he has a good heart.”