When his colleagues at the Georgia Supreme Court said their former Chief Justice P. Harris Hines was kind to “just about everyone he ever met,” they were not exaggerating.
Chief Justice Harold Melton called Hines a “giant of a man” in a special statement released after Hines died in a car crash Sunday. “Because of the love he so freely extended to others, he was loved and cherished by every member of this court, by our staff, and by just about every person who ever met him,” Melton said. “For me personally, he was a mentor and one of my dearest friends. My heart is broken. Our thoughts and prayers are with his beloved wife, Helen, their son and daughter, and their families.”
Presiding Justice David Nahmias read the statement on behalf of the court Monday morning, to save Melton the burden. But Nahmias, too, had to wipe away a tear after he said, “Because of the love and kindness he so freely extended to others, he was loved and cherished by every member of this court, by our staff and by just about every person who ever met him.”
Consider a cold winter day as the justices walked across the street from the Supreme Court to the Capitol for the chief’s annual State of the Judiciary address to the General Assembly. The Senate was preparing to gather in with the House of Representatives to receive the high court. The robes had already been rolled over and were waiting in the “robing room” next to the House Chamber. Wearing their business suits, the justices slipped anonymously past a line outside the entrance to the security checkpoint and entered quickly through another open door.
One justice turned to the line of strangers, shared his famous twinkling smile, said good morning and, “Please excuse us.”
That was Hines—spreading warmth on a winter day.
Preston Harris Hines was born in Atlanta on Sept. 6, 1943, to James Hines, a native of Leslie, Georgia, and Edith Hawkins Hines, who was from Gray, Georgia. He went to Grady High School, where he excelled in both sports and studies. He stayed in Atlanta for college at Emory University, where he graduated in 1965 and then continued in law school.
During an interview just before he became chief justice at the beginning of 2017, Hines recalled the moment he learned he had passed the bar exam in 1968. He was at the home of his then-girlfriend, Helen Holmes Hill, who had moved to Atlanta to become a teacher. Friends had introduced them. His father called Helen’s house on a pay phone from the landmark Plaza Drugs on Ponce de Leon Avenue near the Hines family home off Highland Avenue. James Hines was having his regular nighttime coffee with a doctor friend who worked late at Emory University Hospital and reading the early edition of The Atlanta Constitution.
“That was how you found out you passed the bar. They put it in the paper,” Hines said. His father called and said, “Son, your name is in it.”
“I thought maybe my wife would marry me now, because I could help to support her a little bit,” Hines recalled.
She did. In 1969 they moved to Cobb County, where he landed a job in a Marietta firm then named Edwards, Bentley, Awtrey & Parker. He practiced civil defense of all kinds. The firm represented developers and lenders in a booming suburb, plus the county and some of the cities. Hines also handled business litigation. He liked the work. “I wasn’t one of those who always wanted to be a judge,” he recalled.
But in 1974, friends put his name in for an opening on the Cobb County State Court, which handles civil trials and misdemeanors. He made the short list and went to the Capitol for an interview with then-Gov. Jimmy Carter, who would be elected president just two years later. Hines didn’t know Carter, but he had friends who did, mostly through his family’s farming interests in South Georgia. “Daddy was from Sumter County,” Hines said. So was Carter. The Hines family farmed near the town of Leslie, not too far from the Carter home and peanut farm in Plains.
Carter appointed Hines to the bench in May. Then Hines had to run for election the same year. The primary was in August and the general election in November.
“I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but I didn’t mind it,” Hines said of that first campaign. “There are rules you play by. I’m going to try to win.”
It went well enough that, when the state created a new position on the Cobb County Superior Court, he decided to run for that and won.
“A superior court judge is the most powerful person we’ve got,” Hines said. Sentencing, child custody, temporary injunctions all are set by judges and affect people’s lives profoundly. “I tried to treat everyone who came before me—party, witness, juror—with courtesy, dignity and respect,” Hines said. “Judges symbolize the rule of law. The rule of law is where we get liberty and justice for all. The law is complex. There comes a time when it is difficult to understand. … If people are treated fairly, they’ll trust it. And if they trust it, they’re going to abide by it.”
Another governor, Zell Miller, appointed Hines to the Supreme Court in 1995. “Again, I’m not going to say I knew the governor,” said Hines. “But if you’re going to be appointed, you better have somebody who knows something about the governor. I had friends who certainly knew the governor. He was a good guy.”
Hines was 51 when he went to the high court. During his time there, he said the justices made a concerted effort to reach unanimous decisions “as much as possible to give clear guidance.” Still, they differed and dissented at times, he said. “We vote, and then we go out to lunch together.”
Ultimately, the court is judged on its decisions, he said. “I believe in writing clean, clear, crisp opinions. … Plain writing makes for clear understanding. … We’re trying to simply tell the folks the rule of law in Georgia so they can order themselves accordingly.”
Hines had not quite two years as chief before it was time for retirement—which lasted just two months.
At his last annual State of the Judiciary address to the General Assembly in 2018, Hines charmed the room with generous praise and gratitude for seemingly everyone there. But he saved his most lavish tribute for the most important one. She was there in the House Chamber.
“Finally, I want to thank the lady to whom I gave my best closing argument ever, when I persuaded her to marry me way back in 1969. Helen, you are my rock, my partner, my best friend, my dear one. You have been with me every step of our journey together and have made me a better man, a better father, and a better judge,” Hines said. “To me, you’ve always been springtime at the Masters.”