Politics & Policy

Charlie Crist’s Nonexistent Legal Career

Charlie Crist (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Seven years ago, Charlie Crist was rumored to be on the short list of candidates for the Republican vice-presidential nomination. Today, Crist is no longer a Republican, and he’s been out of elected office for almost five years. He has retreated into his nominal career as a litigator at a private firm while he plots yet another political comeback. His legal career is so nominal, in fact, that for a period of time recently he was apparently ineligible to practice law.

Crist was the front-runner by a mile at the outset of Florida’s 2010 Senate race. His Republican primary challenger, Marco Rubio, began the race polling below the margin of error at 3 percent. But audentes fortuna iuvat, and Rubio chased Crist out of the Republican party in the primary before besting him by nearly 20 points in a three-way general election.

After losing the Senate election, his home in the Governor’s Mansion, and his position within Florida’s Republican party, Crist returned to the Tampa area to practice law with Morgan & Morgan, a large personal-injury firm widely known statewide for their “For the People” slogan and ubiquitous advertising presence on radio, television, and billboards.

The former governor with the perpetually sunny tan was quickly tapped to be one of the firm’s public faces, a role that had previously been filled almost exclusively by firm founder John Morgan and his sons, who have joined the firm in recent years. When Crist debuted with an extremely awkward TV ad for Morgan & Morgan, he was gleefully mocked by a political media amazed at his swift descent from statewide office to local ambulance chaser.

If you can’t place an ally in the governor’s office, a friendly congressman is a decent consolation prize.

Undaunted, Crist continued to be a mascot for the firm, replacing the Morgan family in many of its ads. He officially joined the Democratic party at the end of 2012 and launched an effort to win back his old job, challenging Governor Rick Scott in 2014.

Many questioned whether the sizeable investment that Morgan & Morgan had made in all those Charlie Crist billboards and ads was meant to promote Crist’s legal practice, or if John Morgan, who is an enthusiastic bundler for Florida Democratic candidates, was just exploiting a loophole in Florida’s campaign-finance laws in order to help his party retake the governor’s mansion. To be fair, none of the ads said anything about voting for Crist. But considering the powerful effect that statewide name recognition has on elections, the ubiquity of Crist’s smiling face in ads undoubtedly provided an advantage to him as a candidate. Scott beat him anyway, winning election to a second term last November.

Now, with recent redistricting likely to make his home district more Democratic, Crist is widely expected to run for Congress in 2016. Presumably, his campaign will again have John Morgan’s backing. If you can’t place an ally in the governor’s office, a friendly congressman is a decent consolation prize, and Morgan has the ability to direct major financial support Crist’s way. In addition to his bundling of contributions from other donors, Morgan personally gave at least $25,000 to a PAC supporting Crist’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign. He donated another $250,000 to “People United for Medical Marijuana,” the PAC supporting a medical-marijuana ballot initiative expected to boost Democratic turnout.

#share#In fairness to Morgan, his non-political motivations for helping Crist can’t be completely discounted. It is common for firms to take on big-name politicians as a way of drumming up business, though most other former governors or members of Congress generally strike such deals with more prestigious white-shoe-type law firms. Crist and Morgan even explicitly admitted that his role at the firm is as a rainmaker to bring in clients, but Morgan himself promised reporters that Crist was “going to try cases.”

Whatever the return on investment may be, the firm has chosen to pay him a substantial salary. Crist’s financial disclosures from the 2014 election list 2013 wages of nearly $300,000 from two Morgan & Morgan entities.

* * *

So what about the legal services Charlie Crist purports to offer potential clients in so many ads for the firm? Crist was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1983, after he passed the Bar exam on his third try. His biography on Morgan & Morgan’s website claims that he practices in the areas of “class action” and “mass torts.”

(Side note: Humorously, Crist’s biography apparently has not been updated since he joined the firm, back when he was still a Republican. It still touts his “rock-solid commitment to the core principles that have allowed his family to succeed — lower taxes, less government and more freedom.”)

Class actions and mass torts are litigation-heavy legal specialties that involve appearing in court. This means that Crist would have to file a notice of appearance with any court where he represented a client. Attorneys who handle non-litigation matters such as real-estate transactions or corporate deals might not have court appearances, but a litigation attorney should show up in court records.

The clerks of court for each of the counties in Florida have searchable online databases of their records. Any case where Crist participated as an attorney should show up in each county’s records, and the available records go back decades to cover his entire legal career.

Crist has been an attorney since 1983, though he has spent all but a handful of those years in politics, since he first ran for office in 1986, bouncing from office to office for single terms as a state senator (lost in 1986, won in 1992), education commissioner (won in 2000), attorney general (won in 2002), and governor (won in 2006). Add in his failed attempts at the U.S. Senate in 1998 and 2010, then governor in 2014, and it’s clear campaigning has been more of a profession for Crist than the practice of law. Still, the records on Crist’s legal career are remarkably thin.

Crist has been an attorney since 1983, though he has spent all but a handful of those years in politics.

An online search of the Clerk of Court for Pinellas County, which includes Crist’s hometown of St. Petersburg, for “all case records” (this database includes civil, criminal, family, probate, and even traffic cases) involving Crist as an attorney brings up three guardianship, mental-health, and estate proceedings from 1983 for a woman named Ida Mae Brown (Case Nos. 83-003136-IN, 83-003434-GD, and 83-004079-ES), a 1984 negligence case against a hospital regarding the same woman (Case No. 84-004376-CI), a 1983 mental-health case regarding a Lula Mae Brown (Case No. 83-005601-IN), and then a 1990 estate case for Queenie B. Evans (Case No. 90-005318-ES).

A search for Crist’s appearances as an attorney brings up only one case in Hillsborough County, which neighbors Pinellas and contains Tampa, and one case in Broward County. There are no listings of any court appearances by Crist as an attorney in Orange County (Orlando), Osceola County (Disney World), Leon County (Tallahassee, the state capital), Miami-Dade County, Duval County (Jacksonville), Palm Beach County, Sarasota County, Lee County (Fort Myers), or Brevard County (Space Coast).

For those of you keeping track, that is a total of eight cases from Crist’s private law career, at least three of which are part of the same matter, in which he appeared in court as a litigator. Clarence Darrow he is not. This is not a complete search of all 67 Florida counties, so Crist could, theoretically, have been running a flourishing legal practice in one of Florida’s many lovely small rural towns, but forgive me for being skeptical.

#share#Repeated calls to the Tampa office of Morgan & Morgan proved less than fruitful. When asked for “Charlie Crist’s secretary” or “Charlie Crist’s paralegal,” the firm’s staff replied that such a person isn’t employed there. There is someone named “Tim Morgan,” who is described as Crist’s “liaison to the firm” and who is assigned to “answer media requests” for him, but there is no person whose job it is to assist Crist with actually practicing law.

Anyone who has ever worked in a large litigation firm knows this is not how they function. Litigators have paralegals, secretaries, and other assistants. These employees might be assigned to assist multiple attorneys, but there is someone assisting every active attorney with his or her legal cases. The “class action” and “mass torts” cases that Morgan & Morgan’s website claims Crist handles almost always involve a significant amount of records, and it is not economically feasible to have the attorneys, at their high billable rates, handling all those documents.

* * *

In other words, all the evidence suggests that Charlie Crist is not really practicing law at Morgan & Morgan, and has never in his life been a litigator for any significant amount of time. And as it turns out, that’s a good thing, because he was temporarily banned from practicing law until very recently.

Every active member of the Florida Bar is required to attend 30 hours of approved Continuing Legal Education (CLE) classes every three years. Each attorney is responsible for completing the classes either in person or online, and sending the resultant reports to the Bar.

It appears that Crist either failed to complete the required classes or failed to send in the reports on time. As late as last week, his records on the Florida Bar website showed that he had been deemed “CLER-Delinquent,” and was thus “Not Eligible to Practice Law in Florida.”

On Friday, September 25, Crist seems to have successfully completed the process to have his license reinstated, which required him to pay a nonrefundable fee, complete the delinquent CLE hours, and petition the Bar to approve his reinstatement. I contacted the Florida Bar, and they confirmed that Crist was once again in good standing, but they have not yet responded to my request to confirm the exact dates of his ineligibility. I also reached out to Morgan & Morgan for comment, but did not receive a response before press time.

Until he had his eligibility restored, Crist was barred from appearing in court, giving legal advice, or soliciting work from the public as an attorney. Fortunately for Morgan & Morgan, and the Florida citizens who deserve competent legal representation, Crist’s past record means it is highly unlikely he set foot in a courtroom anytime recently.

When Crist was running for attorney general, he told reporters that his early struggles to pass the Bar exam taught him “greater compassion.” It remains to be seen what lessons he might have learned from his temporary suspension from practice.

— Sarah Rumpf is a journalist and attorney living in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @rumpfshaker.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly listed one of Crist’s elected offices as “election commissioner.” This has been corrected to “education commissioner.” 

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