U.S. Federal Judge J. Owen Forrester (Zachary D. Porter)
Correction appended below
U.S. District Senior Judge J. Owen Forrester, appointed to the federal bench in Atlanta by President Ronald Reagan, died Tuesday morning at the age of 75.
Senior Judge William O’Kelley, who has known Forrester for nearly 50 years and was a close friend and colleague, called Forrester “a hard-working jurist, very dedicated to the law. He was a man of strong moral values, and he believed in doing what was right. … We will miss him dearly.”
O’Kelley said that even as his health deteriorated, Forrester insisted on coming in to work. “He had that approach to his work. It was all important. He devoted himself to it. He worked hard at doing the right thing and trying to render justice.”
“Judge Forrester was one of a kind,” said United States Attorney Sally Quillian Yates. “He truly loved trying cases, both as a prosecutor and as a judge, and enjoyed recounting the courtroom dramas he had witnessed over the years. He was generous and witty, with a razor-sharp intellect and a kind heart. We will miss him terribly.”
Forrester took senior status in 2004 after serving as a trial court judge for 23 years in the Northern District of Georgia. A former assistant U.S. attorney, Forrester served from 1976 to 1981 as a U.S. magistrate judge before Reagan nominated him to the district court bench on Nov. 24, 1981. Forrester was confirmed by the Senate two weeks later.
Born in Columbus, Forrester grew up in Atlanta. He earned his undergraduate degree in 1961 from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
As a Georgia Tech student, Forrester was a radio and television disc jockey, hosting a weekly, hourlong local television show called “Dance Party.” He also hosted a radio show on WABE five days a week that broadcast light classics and jazz, according to the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine.
O’Kelley said Forrester would often tell about the time that he filled in for Dick Clark, who was then the host of “American Bandstand” in Philadelphia.
But Forrester eventually decided against broadcasting as a career, choosing instead to go to law school at Emory University, where he earned his L.L.B. in 1966, according to his federal biography.
Forrester spent two years working on the 1966 gubernatorial campaign staff of Bo Callaway, who nearly became the first Republican to win the Georgia governorship since Reconstruction. Callaway narrowly won the popular vote against Democrat Lester Maddox but did not carry a majority, which threw the election to the Georgia General Assembly. The resulting challenge went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which eventually cleared the way for the Georgia legislature to elect Maddox.
After two years of private practice, Forrester joined the U.S. Attorney’s staff in 1969.
In 1972, Forrester was named head of Atlanta’s Office for Drug Abuse and Law Enforcement, a precursor of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that was created by President Richard Nixon, according to the Tech alumni magazine. In that post, Forrester directed grand jury investigations and oversaw a staff of 25 to 30 federal, state and local agents. After he took senior status, he would frequently reminisce about work investigating the illegal drug trade.
“During that time my hair got very long, and I wore some funny-looking clothes,” Forrester told the alumni magazine. “Sometimes it was easier for the lawyers to do [the field work] than getting an agent, so I spent a little time out wandering around the streets watching people.”
O’Kelley said that as a federal judge, Forrester became an active participant in the national governance of the federal judiciary, serving on the executive committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States and eventually becoming chairman of its automation and technology committee. “He was very instrumental in a lot of the development and advancement of the judiciary within the field of technology,” O’Kelley said.
Forrester told the Georgia Tech alumni magazine shortly before he took senior status that the committee job was akin to being “the chairman of the board of a $100 million company.” He said his goal was to make the federal courts “paperless,” with email, electronic filing and online dockets. Forrester’s committee, he told the magazine, was instrumental in advancing the use of evidence-presentation technology in the courtroom, using satellite downlinks for distance learning, and putting all circuit court opinions online for public access through what is now known as the PACER system.
“I use what I learned at Tech about as often as what I learned at Emory Law School—an awful lot of cases are scientifically oriented—but nowhere until I got into the automation area did I use my management degree to the extent that I do now,” Forrester told the magazine.
“The federal judiciary is 94 district courts, 12 circuits, and basically our committee handles the money, the software procurement and development, the hardware standards, for all those courts: 25,000 to 40,000 people.”
Forrester, O’Kelley recalled, “has given almost all of his life to public service, and, in that devotion … he has given much of it to the advancement of the [judicial] system and improving it. … That’s the thing most people never see or know.”
In his interview with the Georgia Tech alumni magazine, Forrester described his job as a trial judge as “in many respects the best of all possible worlds.”
“We like to say that appellate judges can’t do anything by themselves unless they get at least one other person, four in the Supreme Court,” he said. “Being a trial judge, you’re pretty much on your own. So for somebody like myself, who really enjoys being able to get something done and move on, it’s a lot of fun.”
He truly loved trying cases, both as a prosecutor and as a judge, and enjoyed recounting the courtroom dramas he had witnessed. He was generous and witty, with a razor-sharp intellect and a kind heart.
—Sally Quillian Yates
He was very instrumental in a lot of the development and advancement of the judiciary within the field of technology.
This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: The July 1 online article, “Judge Owen Forrester Dies at 75,” and its July 2 print version misstated that Forrester joined the U.S. attorney’s office in 1967. He joined in 1969.