Politics & Policy

Charlie Crist, Attorney at Law

To many Floridians, Crist’s new job is an insult to his former office. In fact, it perfectly fits the arc of his career.

You may want to pick up one of those magnetic doohickeys and stick Charlie Crist’s new 800 number on the fridge door. Hey, it can happen to any of us — a fender bender, a slip and fall, a smoking toaster — but if it happens to you, God forbid, you’ll want to put your hands on a personal-injury lawyer pronto. And in that moment of personal anguish or avarice or whatever, Charlie Crist could be your man.

Yes, outgoing Florida governor Charlie Crist takes a new job this week with Morgan & Morgan, the state’s premier personal-injury law firm. That’s their adjective, not mine. But M&M offices do seem to be omnipresent around the state, pitched at approximately the same 50-mile intervals as Holiday Inns. That comparison comes easily to mind because the billboards along the interstates are frequently cheek by jowl, the motel chain’s right there next to the law firm’s. When you think of Morgan & Morgan, I’m trying to suggest, you should not confuse it with, say, Sullivan & Cromwell.

#ad#As news of Crist’s career change spread through the Florida political community, some of the stuffier members of the establishment yelped in pain. How could the governor of our great state so disparage the office? Couldn’t he have joined a white-shoe corporate firm or headed up a college on the make or presided over an overstuffed foundation? Something with a little dignity, for Pete’s sake? It’s clear that the offended parties have not reflected on the arc of Charlie Crist’s life in the law, a professional first love to which he has long said he wished one day to return.

The main chapters in that life are clearly demarked. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Florida State back in the Seventies, Crist enrolled at the Cumberland School of Law, part of Samford University, near Birmingham, Ala. It was an old school, well established, but not generally considered to be of the first rank; as a student you were less likely to find yourself seated next to a future David Boies or Nino Scalia than a future Charlie Crist.

After getting his degree in 1981, Crist dashed back across the state line and sat for the Florida bar exam. El problemo: The public record is not clear on just how many times Crist took the bar exam, but it has been reported without challenge that on at least the first two occasions, the result was . . . el flunko. But Crist stuck to it and, when admitted to the bar on the umpteenth try, began his career as a lawyer for professional baseball.

It was not big-time legal work nor, alas, was it big-league baseball. After five years of pinballing around the minor leagues, Crist joined a law firm headed by one J. Emory Wood. Crist became the second lawyer at the firm. The first lawyer, J. Emory himself, was married to Crist’s sister Margaret. The brothers-in-law scrambled away at the practice of law, but there would be, for them, no billboards on the interstate.

With this “solid record of professional accomplishment,” as he later described it, Crist then began his breathless race through the Florida political system, running for some offices that would have him (state senator in 1992, education commissioner in 2000) and some that would not (state senator in 1986, U.S. Senator in 1998), but running, always running, becoming along the way the famously invertebrate politician the country has come to know over the past few years. And then, as happens in all classic stories of American pluck, Charlie Crist got his big break.

In 2002, he managed to get himself tapped to run on the Florida GOP ticket for attorney general. While not even his doting mother would have argued that Crist was the state’s top lawyer, it was not a political season for the picking of nits about competence, career, or credentials. Crist was running on a ticket headed by the wildly popular incumbent governor, Jeb Bush. Well, Crist wasn’t really running. It was more like gliding. In the Florida of 2002, even a Fort Lauderdale lifeguard could have been elected as a down-ballot Republican. In the general election, Crist ran well behind Bush (but no doubt well ahead of the lifeguard), and in 2003 he assumed office as the official, no kidding, numero uno lawyer in the state of Florida.

All of which explains why some of my (admittedly, and archly, white-shoe) lawyer pals said yesterday when Morgan & Morgan announced its newest partner, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

— Neal B. Freeman writes about politics from Jacksonville, Fla.

Neal B. Freeman is a former editor and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.

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