On Sunday, Georgia lost one of its greatest public servants when retired Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Harris Hines was killed in a car accident.
He and his wife were on their way home from seeing their granddaughter sing in the choir at First Methodist Church here in Newnan. As a lawyer and a judge and someone who counted Justice Hines as a friend and mentor, I want everyone to know what a fine lawyer, judge and public servant Justice Hines was. He was a great example to generations of lawyers, including me, of what a judge should be.
When I heard the news about Justice Hines, I called another judge who knew Justice Hines pretty well and told him the news. He remarked that you don’t meet very many genuinely good people in your life, and Justice Hines was one of them.
My colleague was right. I have been in the legal world for more than 20 years, and it is a tough business. The adversarial nature of law can make lawyers and judges abrasive and impersonal. Lawyers sometimes don’t have the best reputation, and sometimes that is deserved. But Justice Hines was the antithesis of the abrasive, impersonal lawyer. He treated everyone he came across with respect. He cared deeply about his profession and his role as a public servant. He was appointed to the bench by Democratic governors but was never a partisan in his work as a judge. He recognized that it is essential for judges to play a non-partisan, non-political role as the independent third branch of government.
Justice Hines was also a first rate gentleman who never met a stranger. He was known for calling people by name, even if he had only met them once. To remember these names he would often call someone by name repeatedly during a conversation. I asked him about this once, and he said that people react differently to you if you know their name. It’s a sign of respect that they pick up on, and you instantly have their attention in a way you wouldn’t if you didn’t call them by name. I think he was right about that.
I was honored when the Georgia Supreme Court, at Justice Hines’ suggestion, asked me to serve temporarily for another justice who had a conflict in a case. While serving on the court I saw firsthand how Justice Hines focused on a fair result in every case. He worked hard to follow the law but also had a common sense understanding of how the court’s decisions would affect the judges and lawyers in the state who rely on the Supreme Court’s opinions to guide their decisions and to advise their clients.
As a trial judge who sits in a local court in the town I live in and hears cases every day, I see how my decisions affect people’s lives. I get frustrated sometimes when appellate courts don’t seem to understand the real world impact of their decisions. I never felt that way about Justice Hines. He had a long career as a trial judge in Cobb County and remained active in that community throughout his career. He was keenly aware that a judge’s decisions are not abstract academic exercises but have a real impact on people’s lives.
Justice Hines also had a special connection to Newnan and Coweta County. His son, Hap, and Hap’s wife Kelly, and their children call Newnan home. Hap has done an outstanding job on the athletic staffs of both Newnan High School and East Coweta High. Justice Hines was a frequent visitor to Newnan and a regular presence at many social events in town and at the First Methodist Church. Although not a local resident, he greeted his relatively new Coweta friends in the warm and familiar manner of an old friend.
Harris Hines was a giant of the legal profession, a role model for lawyers and judges and a friend and mentor that I will miss. With his passing, all the citizens of Georgia have lost one of our great public servants.
Judge Emory Palmer