Herbert Phipps has seen a lot in his 71 years.
He grew up in a rural county so segregated that for years he didn't realize that white children went to school, too. It was a place where racism was so open that lawyers would use a racial epithet to describe their own clients in court.
Phipps says he saw a legal community that failed to object to racial injustices. But he also saw that it was lawyers and judges who had the power to do something. After he received his law degree, he worked to desegregate the same Dougherty County schools of which he was a product and sweep blacks into jury pools.
Now a judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals, Phipps finds himself facing a torrent of cases posing seemingly more mundane issues. And, having been sworn in as the court's chief judge last week, Phipps is charged with agitating not for the rights of an oppressed people but for beefed up court staffing.
Still, Phipps says he sees no disconnect between his current work and what he saw and did in southwest Georgia decades ago.
"One of the things that we were fighting for was to have black people and women in all of these various positions, including the judiciary."
Rural farm roots
Phipps spent his early days in sparsely populated Baker County in the southwestern corner of the state, living on a farm purchased by his paternal grandfather, a former slave. His elementary school had six grades but only three rooms, so each teacher taught two grades—which, he says, provided a benefit for someone who wanted to review a lesson or look ahead.
"It was as rural as you can get," he says.
He didn't pass a white school on his path along the highway but recalls that one day a white child offered him a ride on his scooter. It wasn't until the boy dropped him off and proceeded on his way that Phipps realized he had a different school to attend.
Phipps says his parents hadn't obtained high school diplomas because, in their day, there was no twelfth grade for black students in Baker County. But, he recalls, their house was always full of books, and the family took The Atlanta Constitution by mail.
By the time Phipps was ready for high school, the family had moved to Albany, where Phipps attended Dougherty County schools. One day, he says, the civil rights lawyer C.B. King, the only black attorney practicing in the area, came to speak at his school's career day.
Phipps began visiting C.B. King in his office, and the lawyer would tell Phipps about upcoming cases.
"There were a few days when I would cut school to go watch an interesting trial," says Phipps.
In court, he says, he saw no black judges, no black jurors, no black law enforcement. He saw white lawyers who wouldn't allow their black clients to sit at counsel table with them.
"I've seen people use 'the n-word' just like it was a term of endearment, referring to black parties and witnesses in the courtroom," he says. "And not one time did I see a white lawyer or judge say anything against it."
Phipps went off to Morehouse College in Atlanta. Home in the summertime, he worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee registering voters.
He recalls an incident in which police picked him up at the end of a day of such work. He was calling a friend from a phone booth at night, he recalls. The police wouldn't say what he was in trouble for, he says, and never charged him with anything.
"There was never any record made." But they kept him in the Albany jail for several days, and he says the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had led a march in the city, at one point was placed in the cell next to his.
After college, Phipps recalls, he knew he would have to handle the cost of law school with scholarships, loans or work. He decided to see the world a little bit, first. He travelled to Vietnam for a few months.
"I wanted to see what the war was like," says Phipps. Ultimately he visited the Philippines, Japan, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, India, Pakistan and Thailand, teaching English at a university and private schools in Bangkok.
Following in the footsteps of C.B. King and the black Alabama civil rights lawyer Fred Gray, Phipps went to law school at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.
"I thought that Case was the place you went if you wanted to be a civil rights lawyer," Phipps says, chuckling.
He returned to Georgia to practice with C.B. King on civil rights matters, including an employment case he says did more than any other to bring Albany into the 20th century. In the end, U.S. District Judge Wilbur Owens ordered the city's departments desegregated top to bottom. The name of the lead plaintiff, sanitation worker Johnnie Johnson Jr., now graces two Albany government buildings.
Phipps caught the eye of Dougherty County State Court Judge Rosser Malone, father to one of Phipps' contemporaries in Albany, Tommy Malone, now a plaintiff's lawyer in Atlanta. Judge Malone appointed Phipps to a part-time magistrate position. Phipps later served as a juvenile court judge, and then Governor Zell Miller named him to the Dougherty Superior Court in 1995. Governor Roy Barnes tapped him for the Court of Appeals in 1999.
The mood at Phipps' investiture as chief last week was at times jovial, with his buddy, outgoing Chief Judge John Ellington, revealing Phipps' wry sense of humor in telling a story of a trip they took to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ellington had arrived with Phipps and the late former Chief Judge John Ruffin, who was to formally sponsor Ellington for admission to the court's bar. When a deputy informed the trio that only Ellington's sponsor and one family member could follow him beyond a certain point, Ellington recalled, Phipps told the deputy the two were "brothers by different mothers" and walked on in.
But Phipps acknowledges there was a pall over last week's event. Phipps says that when it came time for his investiture, he had learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had gutted the federal Voting Rights Act less than an hour before. He had worked on voting rights cases with Atlanta lawyer David Walbert, a friend from Case Western who spoke at Phipps' investiture last week, including a bid to dismantle the at-large method of electing county commissioners in Thomas County.
"On June 25, 2013, there is a gap between the theory and the practice of equality," Phipps told those gathered for his swearing-in."
"That was just painful," Phipps says later in his chambers. "We're still fighting for the right to vote."
As the court's new chief, Phipps has some rather mundane administrative matters on his plate. He says one goal as chief is to regain staff positions lost several years ago in the midst of the economic downturn, including the so-called "central staff" attorneys who serve the court as a whole rather than a particular judge. He says the court will continue to improve its electronic filing system and update its rules to ensure compatibility with e-filing. And Phipps says he hopes to have a replacement for court clerk Holly Sparrow in place before her retirement at the end of August.
Phipps also has to herd the members of a changing court, with seven of its 12 members having joined the court in the past five years. Many of the new members are conservative, Republican appointees. They have new ideas—some of which, Phipps says, have been tried before, others not.
Meanwhile, Phipps still must handle his caseload, a slog of criminal appeals, slip-and-fall cases and other cases that seldom make headlines.
His court might not get big civil rights cases or big constitutional issues. But, he says, "there are people who are mistreated in run-of-the-mill cases, and when you have people on this court and other courts who are sensitive to those issues, then they can do whatever is appropriate to make sure even those folks who get caught up in the criminal justice system and things that sound so run of the mill get treated right, treated fairly. The worst person who comes to the courthouse is entitled to be treated fairly, to be treated right, and we have to make sure that happens."