Richmond County Courthouse (Photo by John Disney/Daily Report)
Teeing Off in Augusta
Golf is always part of the picture in Augusta, even when the focus is on the Garden City’s legal community.
Sherman’s Snub Notwithstanding, Augusta’s Rich History Includes Sanctuary for Banned Lawyers
Since lawyers were banned in Georgia’s first city, Savannah—founded in 1733 by British General James Oglethorpe—the only place to hang up a shingle became Augusta, Georgia’s second city, which Oglethorpe founded just three years later.
‘Spirit Guides’ Tell Tales in Augusta’s Historic Summerville Cemetery
On a lunch break from hearing divorce cases, Augusta Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig, 58 and white-haired, bounds into Summerville Cemetery with the enthusiasm of a boy just out of school for the summer.
In a city that takes its history seriously, it makes sense that the 340-member Augusta Bar Association is one of the oldest in Georgia, founded in 1895.
Members wrote this in 1901: “The Association is established to maintain the honor and dignity of the profession of the law, to increase its usefulness, promote the due administration of justice, and to cultivate social intercourse among its members.”
Its mission has not changed in 119 years.
It also seems fitting that the city’s modern red brick courthouse bears the name of Georgia Court of Appeals Judge John H. Ruffin Jr. He died at the age of 75 in 2010, the year before the dedication of his namesake building.
Yet Ruffin’s name on the courthouse also serves as a reminder of what has changed during the bar association’s long history. He was the first African-American to be admitted as a member of the Augusta Bar Association, as well as the first to become an Augusta Judicial Circuit Superior Court judge and the first to become chief judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals.
Born in 1934, Ruffin was the son of a shoemaker in rural Burke County, which is part of the Augusta Judicial Circuit, along with the city and the Richmond County combined government and suburban Columbia County, where most of the area’s growth has sprawled.
Ruffin attended Burke County’s segregated schools, then graduated from Morehouse College in 1957. Although his mother wanted him to return home and teach, he went to Howard University School of Law because he wanted to “join the fight for racial equality,” according to his obituary in the Augusta Chronicle-Herald.
Ruffin was admitted to the State Bar of Georgia in 1961 and started a civil rights practice in Augusta. He was the plaintiff’s counsel in Acree v. Richmond County Board of Education, the 1964 class action lawsuit that led to the court-ordered desegregation of Augusta’s public schools. Later the same year, he filed a federal lawsuit that forced the desegregation of the city’s public golf course. He once told a Chronicle-Herald reporter that his civil rights work was the most satisfying part of his career.
He continued his private practice until Gov. Joe Frank Harris appointed him to the superior court in 1986. He ran unopposed in his first election in 1988. In 1994, Gov. Zell Miller appointed him to the Court of Appeals. After his retirement in 2008,
Ruffin fulfilled his mother’s wish, teaching at Morehouse College until his death.
In a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives following Ruffin’s death, Congressman John Barrow said he considered it a sign of progress in his home state that every member of the Georgia congressional delegation signed the resolution honoring Ruffin.
“He was the lawyer who desegregated the Richmond and Burke County public school system,” Barrow said. “Jack Ruffin did as much to change the laws and attitudes in Georgia as anyone else of his generation. As a result, we’re a better and a freer people.”
Three years after Ruffin’s death the federal court order to desegregate Augusta’s schools was lifted. Ruffin once told the Chronicle-Herald that he never expected the struggle for equality to take so long. “I thought I’d be a civil rights attorney for 10 years, then go on to make some serious money, but that obviously didn’t happen,” he told the newspaper.
“The progress we made in race relations has to be at the top, even though we still have a long way to go,” he said.
Ruffin is best known by the current members of the local bar as a mentor, friend and adviser. Superior Court Judge Sheryl Jolly, the only woman on the local bench, says she still keeps a note on her desk that he left for her in the old courthouse the year before he died. He had stopped by to say hello and offer support and encouragement, maybe share a story or a laugh, as he often did. She was in court, so he left a note, with date and time. When she moved to the new courthouse, that last note went with her.
The immediate past president of the Augusta Bar Association, Sonja Tate of Fulcher Hagler, one of the city’s largest firms, recalls that Ruffin spoke at her graduation from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1996. Then, and every time she heard him speak afterward in continuing legal education courses and other events, his theme was service to the community.
“The law wasn’t just a job to him,” Tate said. “It wasn’t just a way to earn our keep and support our families, but a way to support each other and lift each other up.”
Augusta Bar Association President Adam King of Nicholson Revell, a plaintiffs’ firm, said the most satisfying part of his work with the group has been the annual charity golf tournament that raises an average of $10,000 a year to help support area nonprofit organizations. “It’s kept a couple of charities going,” King said. In recent years, the event has benefited a community center, a homeless shelter and a domestic violence assistance and prevention program.
Like Ruffin, King grew up in rural Burke County. The son of a Southern Baptist minister and a teacher, King shares the commitment to service that Ruffin embodied, although from a different perspective. King was an assistant district attorney for six years before joining his law firm.
“I know it sounds corny, but the opportunity to help people means so much in my life,” King says. Whether it’s advocating for victims of crime, discrimination, injury or medical malpractice, he says practicing law offers a unique opportunity “to meet people that I would never meet in real life and do the best I can to help them through a difficult time.”