Justice Keith Blackwell, Supreme Court of Georgia (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Justice Keith Blackwell, Supreme Court of Georgia (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

As bitter partisan bickering came to a crescendo with the midterm elections this week, brand new lawyers sworn in at the Georgia Supreme Court were presented with a challenge along with their “certificates suitable for framing.”

“We seem to have lost the capacity to disagree without being disagreeable,” Justice Keith Blackwell told the latest entries admitted to the practice of law there. The adversarial nature of their job, always advocating for clients on opposite sides of a dispute, provides a vehicle to lead the way toward the light, he told them.

“We as a profession have an opportunity to showcase for society how to disagree in a civil tone,” Blackwell said. “That requires that we humanize those with whom we disagree.”

Lawyers need to take seriously their role as guides to justice for all, Blackwell said.

“You are the most frequent point of contact that most citizens will have with the legal system,” Blackwell said. “You are—what our dear friend Harris Hines used to say—the indispensable men and women when it comes to maintaining the integrity of the system.”

Blackwell was drawing inspiration from recently retired Chief Justice P. Harris Hines, who was killed in a car crash Sunday. Moments earlier, the court had opened its Monday morning session with a somber tribute and a moment of silence for Hines, remembered most movingly for his kindness.

The high court has a long tradition of passing on words of wisdom, or at least encouragement, to new lawyers, along with the papers that Hines smilingly called “certificates suitable for framing.” Court-watchers say they can tell who is going to write the first opinion of the day based on who takes point on the talk, although that precedent doesn’t always apply.

Hines gave the talk when the high court held oral arguments at the University of Georgia School of Law in Athens a year ago, but he didn’t write either of the two opinions that came from that session six months later. He did use the “indispensable” speech, though.

After that group investiture in the fall of 2017, the chief started a history lesson on James Madison 230 years ago planning the Constitutional Convention. Hines said Madison in eight words persuaded George Washington, 43 and battle-weary, to attend: “General, you must. You are the indispensable man.”

Hines told the newbies at the time, “As lawyers, you are the indispensable people.”

Then he sprinkled them with a shower of quotations. He started with his son, Hap Hines, kicker for the University of Georgia Bulldogs football team from 1996 to 1999. “You will experience a lot of excitement and moments of terror when your son is kicking in front of 100,000 people,” the elder Hines said last year. When asked by his father if he ever felt fear, the son said: “Dad, you just play through it.” Do that, the chief justice advised them.

Hines suggested emulating Justice David Nahmias’ “pay it forward” motto. He said the song Frank Sinatra made famous, “My Way,” with the “I did it my way” chorus, represents a “truly a horrible philosophy,” prompting a big laugh from the crowd. No one can do it alone, Hines added at the time.

Hines also cited Justice Harold Melton, urging, “Bloom where you are planted.”

And he quoted Robin Frazer Clark, former president of the State Bar of Georgia and the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, saying: “Look at everything through the eyes of kindness.” Be like her, Hines advised in last year’s address.

Then he sent the audience off to pick up their “certificates suitable for framing” with this blessing: “I wish you health and happiness.”

No doubt Hines would concur with Blackwell’s call for kinder tone.