Richard Watson: admired jurist dies

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The namesake of the St. Johns County Courthouse, Richard Orien Watson, has passed away in St. Augustine after fighting a losing battle with pancreatic cancer — he was 78 years-old.

He graduated from Ketterlinus High School in 1951 where he played football, basketball, and baseball. Watson was selected to the all-conference and all-state teams in football, and in 2010, he was inducted into the Ketterlinus-St. Augustine High School Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the St. Augustine and St. Johns County Halls of Fame.

Watson attended the University of Florida on a football scholarship, and graduated with a degree in journalism. He attended the University of Florida Law School. He graduated first in his law school class with honors and was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1960.

Judge Watson was appointed to the bench in 1977 to replace Judge Howell Melton — Watson served as Circuit Judge for the 7th Judicial Circuit from 1977 to 1996. He was twice elected by his fellow judges as the Chief Judge of the 7th Judicial Circuit and he also served as the administrative judge for St. Johns County for approximately 20 years. He continued to serve as a Senior Circuit Judge from 1996 to his death.

“It would not be possible to pick one particularly memorable moment out of a long career,” Watson told reporters in 2008 during dedication ceremonies of the judicial center that bears his name. “And, it would be unfair.”

Judge Watson served as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army and was later commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the Florida National Guard. He rose to the rank of Major.

Judge Watson practiced law in Ft. Lauderdale for several years before returning to St. Augustine. In addition to his private law practice in St. Augustine, Judge Watson served for 7 years as a part-time assistant state attorney and 4 years as a part-time assistant public defender. He was elected to the St. Augustine City Commission in 1975 and he also served on numerous other public boards. Judge Watson was active in numerous community organizations, including Rotary. He was a Paul Harris Fellow.

“Judge Watson was the finest trial court Judge I ever had the privilege of practicing before,” County Court Judge Alexander R. Christine, Jr. told Historic City News. “He was superbly competent, highly compassionate and fearlessly just.”

When Historic City News editor Michael Gold was at Christine’s law office, having just heard from the governor that he had won the judicial appointment, Christine was on the phone with the senior judge; receiving words of support and encouragement. “He was quite simply a great jurist,” Christine said.

St. Johns County Sheriff David B. Shoar was noticeably emotional about the loss of a close mentor and role model. “As a nineteen year-old cop who was still very green, I looked up to Judge Watson and would think to myself — if I could only measure up to half of the man that he was, I would be enormously fortunate.”

Shoar last spoke to Watson about three weeks ago, according to the sheriff at a meeting in his office this morning. “I wrote him a letter after he told me about the severity of his cancer — I was too choked up to talk about my feelings directly to the man I hold in such high esteem.” When the Sheriff saw him after delivering that letter, he said that Watson expressed how much it had moved him. “That meant the world to me,” Shoar recalled.

“If integrity is the essential quality of a judge, patience isn’t far behind,” Watson remarked in an interview three years ago. “I’ve got to say a judge can’t justify being belligerent or rude to people. That’s not the way to get the job done.”

St. Johns County Clerk of Court Cheryl Strickland told Historic City News that she knew Watson to be an excellent judge — even in her dealings with him under the prior administration; before she was first elected. “Judge Watson was greatly liked and respected statewide,” Strickland said.

On a personal note, Strickland said that Watson always had time for people; a quality she admired in him. “You can absolve a lot of sins by being decent to people,” Watson once told her. Watson seemed to know that his decisions, as a prosecutor under State Attorney Stephen Boyles, and, later as a judge, affected people, both defendants and their families, for the rest of their lives.

“Judge Watson will be missed,” Strickland said this morning. “He was always fair to everyone who came before the bench.”

Judge Watson is survived by his wife of 50 years, Peggy Pope Watson of St. Augustine; three children: Richard C. Watson and his wife Lynn of Jacksonville; Jeffery P. Watson and his wife Susan of Jacksonville; and Edie Wetherell and her husband Kent of Tallahassee; six grandchildren; and a brother, Jerry H. Watson of Douglasville, Ga. He was preceded in death by his parents, Herman J. Watson and Ann S. Watson, and a brother, Donald S. Watson.

Arrangements are pending for a celebration of Judge Watson’s life.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Guardian Ad Litem Program of the 7th Judicial Circuit, 250 North Beach Street, Daytona Beach, FL, 32114, or the Bailey Family Center for Caring c/o Community Hospice of Northeast Florida, 400 Health Park Boulevard, St. Augustine, FL 32086.

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