John W. Sognier flew missions as a fighter pilot in World War II. He practiced law and was a state legislator. He went on to be chief judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals, and after leaving the court, he picked up another degree.
But Sognier, who died Sept. 6 at the age of 93, is perhaps best known in the legal community for a minor indignity: being booted from the bench at the polls. The Savannah native's 1992 defeat remains the only time in recent memory that an incumbent Georgia appellate court judge has been challenged successfully at the ballot box.
He was not embroiled in any great scandal, and his opponent, G. Alan Blackburn, didn't take issue with his decisions. Blackburn just pointed out that, under the state's retirement rules, Sognier wouldn't be able to serve his full term if re-elected. Blackburn rode a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment to victory. It was an anticlimactic end to a storied career.
Born to two Savannah natives, Joseph Sognier and Viola Trott Sognier, John Sognier graduated from Savannah High School. He attended Columbus University Law School at what's now the Catholic University of America in Washington.
According to his official court biography, Sognier served in the military in World War II before becoming admitted to the Georgia Bar in 1946. Transferring from the Infantry to the Air Force, Sognier flew 59 missions in the European Theater and later commanded a fighter squadron in India-Burma.
Sognier served on recall during the Korean War. He received several Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. A son, John Sognier Jr., later was killed in action in Vietnam in 1967, according to the judge's death notice.
After World War II, Sognier began practice with the Savannah firm of Kennedy, Jenkins and Oliver. Sognier had married Josephine Kennedy, and her father, John Groover Kennedy, was senior partner at the firm and became mayor of Savannah in 1947. The firm became Kennedy and Sognier in 1948, and Sognier remained there until his appointment to the bench in 1980.
Meanwhile, Sognier became active in local politics, serving a stint in the state Legislature, then as Chatham County registrar and county attorney. Sognier was a Democrat, although "he leaned more in the other direction in his later years," said Loretto Sognier, the judge's widow, whom he married after he and Josephine divorced.
Governor George Busbee appointed him to the Court of Appeals. At a 1992 event marking Sognier's departure from the court, Busbee recalled that his interview of Sognier was unique. "Right up front, he said, 'Governor, I want to tell you,' he said, 'I didn't vote for you when you ran.'" (Busbee's account didn't make clear if he was referring to his 1974 Democratic primary race with former governor Lester Maddox, his subsequent general election defeat of Macon mayor Ronnie Thompson or his 1978 re-election over Rodney Cook.)
"He told me who he voted for, and I thought maybe the Judicial Nominating Commission had more sense than I thought they did in selecting a man that had that discretion," Busbee continued. "But I told him, I said, you know that's not one of the criteria that they use anymore. He said, 'But if you run again, I will [vote for you].'"
Sognier was elected to a six-year term in 1981 and re-elected in 1986.
Marion Pope Jr., who joined the court the year after Sognier, said his office was just across the hall from Sognier's. "We would talk to one another at a time when some judges wouldn't," said Pope. "Everyone liked Jack."
Pope said Sognier was athletic, even in his chambers. "I would go in there, and he would be doing situps and pullups,' said Pope.
"His hair was always black," Pope added. "He never did turn gray."
Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham, who joined the Court of Appeals in 1984, made note of Sognier's passing at a Supreme Court session last week, calling Sognier a mentor and pointing to him as an example of public service for new admittees to the Supreme Court bar to emulate. "You couldn't have asked for a nicer fella," Benham said later. "And I couldn't have asked for a nicer colleague when I came to the court."
"He was always a consensus builder, trying to get judges together to work on legal issues, and was admired and respected by all of the members of the Court of Appeals."
Sognier succeeded George Carley as chief judge of the appeals court in 1991. Carley, who recently retired from the state Supreme Court, said Sognier was "smart—he could go right to the issue and decide it, and he was a good colleague."
"You'd have to hear him talk in—whatever they call that Savannah language," Carley added. "He had that accent."
At the 1992 ceremony, Carley recalled a trip the two judges took with their wives. The group rode mules down into the Grand Canyon, Carley recounted, and with each step the mules "appeared to get closer and closer to the abyss."
"Jack was riding behind me on a mule called 'Joline,'" Carley said, "and he became more and more exasperated until finally I heard him say, 'Look here, mule, I am chief judge of the Court of Appeals of Georgia, and I order you not to walk so close to the edge of the trail.' Joline snorted, looked around at Jack, and promptly proceeded to do what mules are want to do in the middle of the trail. I guess that mule knew that Jack was out of his jurisdiction."
If a mule is one thing a powerful judge cannot control, voters are another. In 1992, at the age of 72, Sognier found himself in a contested race. His opponents, Blackburn and C. Michael Abbott of Atlanta, both said they were running against Sognier partly because he would reach the mandatory retirement age of 75 just two years into a new six-year term. Blackburn, then a lawyer in Marietta, said at the time that it wasn't fair to the voters for a judge to run for a fraction of term, and his campaign literature stressed that the election of Sognier would amount to another appointment for Governor Zell Miller.
Relatively unknown among lawyers, but perhaps having generated some name recognition among voters in a previous campaign, Blackburn, who retired from the court in 2010, won a runoff with an angry, anti-establishment message. As chronicled by the Daily Report at the time, two lawyers whom Sognier had spurned in a decision over a legal malpractice case against them helped underwrite Blackburn's final newspaper and radio advertisement blitz.
Before the election, Miller agreed, under the terms of a tentative settlement of a federal voting rights challenge against the state's method of electing judges, to abolish contested judicial elections in favor of an appointment-retention election system. After the race, Sognier suggested his own support of the proposal—later scuttled—may have hurt him.
Sognier didn't retire to a life of leisure after his defeat. At the 1992 event he explained, "I was raised in a sterner life, I think, that I must seek to repay, the rest of my days, all that I've been given."
"He decided it was time for a new chapter in his life," said his widow, Loretto. Although he had maintained a general practice before going on the bench—"he would do anything from murder to real estate"—after the election Sognier decided he wanted to dive into tax law, she said. The former judge dredged up his 50-year-old law school transcript and obtained a master's degree in taxation from Emory University in 1994. At the age of 74, she recalled, he was Emory's oldest graduate that year.
Sognier practiced tax law with Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Martin for nine years, then came home to Savannah to open a solo practice. He also served as an arbitrator, mediator and as a senior judge. According to his widow, Sognier stopped working a few years ago but played golf until earlier this year. She said he started feeling poorly in June.
Loretto Sognier said her husband died at home in Savannah. "His heart wore out at age 93 and three-quarters," she said. "It just stopped pumping."
"He was a wonderful man," she added. "I'm just glad that I was part of his life."
In addition to his wife, Sognier is survived by his daughter, Anne Sognier Murray of Savannah, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His widow noted that Sognier influenced one of her children, Jack Minnear, now a partner in the New York office of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman, into pursuing a career as a lawyer.
A graveside service was held in Savannah on Sept. 9. The family has asked that remembrances be made to the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, 501 St. Jude's Place, Memphis, Tenn., 38105-9959.