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An attorney father’s last words to his son amid Florida Bar hellscape: ‘Don’t let the Bar & courts get you down’

last words
Steve Uhlfelder, left, and his son Daniel, at the 2008 SEC championship game, Florida v. Alabama

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.

Front row, (l) to (r): Justice Charles T. Canady; Chief Justice Carlos G. Muñiz; Justice Jorge Labarga. Back row, (l) to (r): Justice Renatha Francis; Justice John D. Couriel; Justice Jamie R. Grosshans; Justice Meredith Sasso.

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.

RELENTLESS PURSUIT

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.”

First District Court of Appeal Judges Adam Tanenbaum, top left, Bradford Thomas and Susan Kelsey

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.”

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Latest comments

  • Maybe Ron can’t take the heat in this kitchen

  • The entire Florida Judicial system is corrupt – they don’t care about justice or the
    oaths they took – they are puppets of DeSantis with not even a basic sense of decency.
    Truly disgusting – they abuse justice instead of defending it. Disgusting!!

  • In FloriDuh, the pledge reads, “…with Liberty and Justice to all who support DeSantis.” The vindictiveness of this governor, and the willingness of Republican legislators to support WHATEVER he wants, should give all Floridians a chill. It is physically sickening that we are watching our freedoms erode. Our tax dollars are being spent to support DeSanctimonious’ political past, present, and future. We have an insufficient number of FHP Troopers to patrol our roads, yet there are a hundred or more in Texas. We have a crisis in Health Care and Homeowner Insurance rates in our FloriDUH, yet our legislators bend to the will of the governor, and enact laws to physically harm members of the LGBTQ+ community. I realize that elections have consequences, but, our elected legislators in Tallahassee have VIOLATED the rules and regulations prescribed for the positions that they hold.Look how they washed their hands of redistricting!

  • The whole floriduh political system is corrupt!!!!

  • If this reads like the screenplay for a MAGA mob movie, that’s because it IS a MAGA mob story, and that’s been painfully obvious since long ago when Don Ron first entered the governor’s mansion. This is the deepest corruption, and it will fix itself further in place until this rot is cleaned out wherever it’s found. Don’t hold your breath.

  • I opined in earlier column comments that the guv wouldn’t be the nominee nor win the FL primary March 19. And if foolish enough to run again in 2028, will not be the Republican nominee.

  • You have to ask yourself if the state supreme court, the district court, and the Bar will be quite so eager if the attorney conduct comes from lawyers making claims on behalf of the Republican frontrunner for president.

  • Floridians were relived that DeSatan didn’t win the primary to run for President. He is running this state like Hitler, throwing elected officials out of office & attorneys because he didn’t like what they said. I thought America still had FREE SPEECH but these are actions of a wannabe DICTATOR. The destruction that man could have done to America is frightening. Since DeSantis is an attorney why can’t we the people file a complaint with the bar over DeSantis illegal actions? He got rid of SUNSHINE laws because he didn’t want people to read of his corruptions.

  • Hey woke, wake up. it is so sad that you can’t handle a Governor that has everyone’s best interest in mind. You are clueless to the damage your “ideology” would lead to. Let the adults in the room make the hard choices. Allowing perverts to expose children to porn in elementary schools, criminals released to reoffend and supporting divisive measures such as dei in colleges is just feeding the eternal enemy of mankind.

  • DeSantis had to drop out of his campaign for “President”. The more this Fascist Authoritarian spoke the less he was liked and his polls dropped into the sewer where it belongs. He is a danger to society, our Democracy and all that our constitution stands for. I continue to support Daniel Uhlfelder who does not deserve to be unjustly punished by DeSantis and “The Republican
    ” appointed legal system. This legal system and the oath they took is supposed to be united and not Red or Blue, and run by the Republican Governor, who like Trump believes he’s King.

  • Thank you for illuminating this situation. Without public awareness it will only get worse. So-called power is intoxicating and can make those who weld it lose sight of what they are supposed to do. Ultimately we will all have to give an account for whether or not what we did to others is what we want done to ourselves.

  • I believe tomorrow Lynx Toney is supposed to begin his FDLE trial. Let’s see if it is again delayed for something like Toney didn’t have a fresh set of blue panties to wear or maybe he was too busy shooting his friend in the head then lying about it.

  • I used to be PROUD to say I’m a Republican – now I’m ASHAMED! I never thought I’d say that! The intolerable level of CORRUPTION in this state, and especially in Broward County, cannot be overstated! NO ONE plays by the Rules anymore…including the prejudiced, corrupt, bought-and-paid-for circuit and appellate court JUDGES! Socioeconomically disadvantaged litigants, (mostly Defendants), are considered second-class citizens in civil proceedings. I’m the most HATED pro se litigant in the 17th Judicial Circuit Court because having done my due diligence in matters of judicial MISCONDUCT, I’ve successfully disqualified TWELVE judges from my cases by knowing how to use the Florida Code of Judicial Conduct against them! When judges see trouble coming, most of them are smart enough to GET OUT of the case! However, one of them, circuit court judge JOHN B. BOWMAN is about to find himself sitting at the Defendant’s table in a federal courtroom on Civil Rights violations. As usual, I’ll probably have to prosecute my claims as a pro se Plaintiff because no lawyer will represent me against a Judge and MONEY has nothing to do with it! By the way, the corruption that is Florida’s so-called “system of Justice” extends to the Florida Attorney General’s office! Before she goes after others, ASHLEY MOODY should get her own house cleaned up first!

  • MR. DEWEY .. Please don’t sully the MAGA movement with Ron DeSantis AKA Ron DeSanctimonious and his personal MDGA. We learned his true colors appointing unqualified Judges who OWE him; and we learned about his willingness to deceive when the Majority Republican Florida Legislature sought to PROTECT WILDLIFE by outlawing PLACTIC Straws in favor of Paper STRAWS and DeSantis vetoed the protection BILL! Didn’t the Plastic STRAW Manufactorer give DeSantis big Campaign $$ Funds?
    And please MR. CRESPO — Sadly CORRUPTION is a personal trait. BOTH parties buy ALLIEGANCE. Politicians & Political Appointees are abhored by WE THE PEOPLE because most have no scruples or Honor. BULLDOG thank you for exposing Injustice. A truth telling Media is a RARE jewel today.

  • Sully the MAGA movement? What a comment! How can you sully what is already pig slop?

  • Are they going to charge Andrew Warren for suing DeSantis? After all, he is a “liberal” too.

  • Judge Susan Kelsey is my sister. She refused to associate with me because I am gay. She is a biased judge. Remember to vote her OUT next time.

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