Friends and colleagues on Friday remembered Ocmulgee Circuit Superior Court Judge James Cline Jr. as an extremely intelligent jurist who tempered a no-nonsense courtroom demeanor with humor, spurring litigants and lawyers to move things along with an oft-repeated admonition of “We’re burning daylight!”
“I always enjoyed knowing when he was going to be on the calendar, because he moved things very quickly,” said Gray attorney John Newberry, the former president of the Ocmulgee Circuit Bar Association. “If court started at 9, you could go in early and speak to him because he’d be on the bench by 8:30, ready to go.”
“The thing that characterized him was this incredible memory for the facts of cases and the law,” said Madison solo Marty Fierman, a close friend.
Having been on the bench for nearly 20 years, Cline came from a “pre-computer, pre-cellphone, pre-Westlaw” era, “in an eight-county circuit where all the law you had was either between your ears or in your saddlebags,” Fierman said.
“He remembered everything that happened; he had a very quick mind, and zero tolerance for anyone not prepared or who was tap-dancing. But he also had a very folksy kind of presentation, which played well with jurors in our part of the state.”
Cline, 62, died Thursday of what the Georgia Bureau of Investigation concluded was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest at his home in Greensboro. Ronnie Joe Lane, a former judge who is the executive director of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, said Cline was not under any sort of investigation by the commission.
A graduate of Mercer University’s Walter F. George Law School, Cline joined the State Bar of Georgia in 1977. He was originally from Cherokee County, Fierman said, where his father was the postmaster for Waleska.
Cline was divorced and the father of one son, J. Cline. He served as an assistant district attorney in both the Ocmulgee and Bibb County circuits, and was appointed to the Ocmulgee bench in 1995 by Gov. Zell Miller. The Ocmulgee Circuit encompasses Baldwin, Greene, Hancock, Jasper, Jones, Morgan, Putnam and Wilkinson counties.
Cline’s superior court colleague, Judge Hulane George, attended Mercer Law with Cline, graduating one year later and joining the Ocmulgee bench one year earlier.
“If I had to sum him up, I’d say he was very loyal: to his friends, to the people who worked for him. He was very intelligent, and an excellent cook,” she said. “One thing a lot of people didn’t know was that he would provide food for a variety of charitable organizations; he really gave of himself.”
George said Cline loved the outdoors and training dogs.
“I wonder what’s going to happen to his dogs,” she worried.
“I never would have expected this,” she said. “I had lunch with his court reporter on Tuesday, and she said he was talking about running for another term and was very happy. I remember making the comment, ‘Our circuit really seems to be in a good spot, everything seems to be smoothing out.’”
“This has all taken every one of us by surprise and shock,” said Madison solo Brenda Trammell. “Jim was a very smart guy, one of the smartest I’ve known. He was a total country boy: he loved hunting and he loved barbecue.”
“He wasn’t a patient guy; he was very quick to get to the issues of a case, to cut to the chase,” Trammell said. “A lot of people didn’t understand that he did not tolerate fools gladly, but he always did what he thought was the right thing.”
Cline’s passion for barbecue was legendary, his friends said, and he was locally famous for his own sauce, Judge Cline’s No. 9, which he bottled and sold.
“That sauce actually got him in a little trouble,” said Fierman with a laugh. “Somebody complained about him using his judge’s title commercially to the bar. They said he could keep the name, but he had to divest the business, so he divested to his son.”
George said she had been preoccupied Friday with thinking about her friend’s death.
“Driving back from Morgan County, I thought how sad it was that somebody could be that desperate, and you’re not able to see it from the outside. You wonder what you could have done,” she said.
The State Bar of Georgia offers a suicide prevention program called “How to Save a Life,” which offers assistance to those dealing with anxiety and depression who may be at risk for suicide. Individuals who may be considering suicide or who are worried about a friend or family member are urged to call the confidential hotline at 1-800-327-9631.