It’s been 16 years since Judge Watson White retired from the Cobb County Superior Court, but he’s continued to come to work as a senior judge, developing a courthouse specialty of entertaining jurors reporting for duty.
Now White, 91, has retired again, because of failing health. He announced it two weeks ago.
“Mentally, he’s still sharp, but at 91 his body is just worn out,” said his son, Daniel White, an attorney with Haynie Litchfield & Crane.
Watson White is a veteran of World War II, during which he was a tank driver. A graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law, he became a member of the State Bar of Georgia in 1950. He moved to Marietta and took a job in management at Lockheed until he saved enough money to open his own law office, his son recalled.
White practiced law until 1968, when he was elected to an open seat on Cobb County State Court. Ten years later, he won an open seat on the Cobb County Superior Court. The day he took office, Jan. 1, 1979, was his 58th birthday — and the day Daniel was born.
“I was fortunate to have achieved my ambition,” Watson White said in a phone interview from his home. “My highest goal was to be a superior court judge.”
Lawyers who tried cases before him remember his knowledge of the law and his sharp wit. He sometimes subdued demanding attorneys by asking them, “What do you think this is, a hot dog stand?,” Marietta plaintiff’s lawyer Matthew Flournoy recalled. “You don’t just get your order and walk away.”
White retired from superior court at the end of 1994 after handling two years of pre-trial work for the Fred Tokars murder-for-hire case, his son said. It was a difficult decision. Murder trials were White’s favorite part of the job, but he knew the stresses of a death penalty case. So he decided to open his seat for the election of a younger judge. Jim Bodiford was elected to White’s seat and tried the Tokars case in 1995.
“I hated to retire and do something I didn’t want to do,” White said. So he didn’t. Since then, as one of four senior judges, White has handled uncontested divorces, trial substitutions and swearing in jurors. But the way he did it was like no one else, his colleagues said.
White’s standard introduction of himself to the Monday morning jury pool became something of a show at the courthouse, said Cobb County Clerk of Superior Court Jay Stephenson. White defined for the jury a senior judge as one who has been “put out to pasture.” Stephenson recalled White saying, “The court administrator allows me to come in and handle matters of short duration that don’t require me to stay awake for long.”
“I try to make them feel relaxed,” White said. “You cannot hurt anybody by poking fun at yourself.”
White’s technique was useful as well as entertaining, according to Court Administrator Tom Charron. “Jurors aren’t too happy when they come in on Monday morning. Some are probably less happy than sometimes criminal defendants. His sense of humor was so disarming it put them at ease,” Charron said.
Along with humor, White liked to give jurors compliments. Charron said one of White’s customs was to tell the pool, “Only the most upright and upstanding citizens are chosen for jury duty. That is a sore spot with me since I’ve never been summoned.”
It was not uncommon for White, after a few minutes with the jurors, to receive a standing ovation when he left the bench, said Charron.
Charron said he and White recently reminisced about cases that Charron, as Cobb district attorney in the 1980s and 1990s, tried before the judge. “He has the greatest memory of legal issues and cases,” Charron said. “He remembered more of the specifics than I did.”
White expressed to friends two goals for his tenure as a senior judge: work until he was 90, which he achieved last year, and swear in his son as a lawyer. That second goal was met in 2005 when he swore in his son, who also graduated from UGA’s School of Law. Daniel White has a general civil practice with an emphasis on government. Another lawyer came with the package: his daughter-in-law, Evelyne “Katie” White, who worked first with Brock Clay and then as a public defender. She’s now working full time with the couple’s five children.
“He loves the law and he has the most integrity of anyone I know,” said Nancy White, the judge’s wife of 36 years. They have five children. “And,” she added, “he has a better memory than I did at 25.”