Judge T. Jackson Bedford Jr. (John Disney/Daily Report)
The holiday is still six months away, but Fulton County Superior Court Judge T. Jackson Bedford Jr. has already started growing the beard that will have become a snowy, chest-length cloud by Christmas Day, when he assumes his annual role of Santa Claus at Egleston Children’s Hospital. It’s one of several locales he will visit during the season to dandle children on his knee, distribute presents, and maybe even perform a marriage ceremony as a “Victorian-ish Father Christmas.”
“It takes about five months to grow it out right,” he said, grinning, and looking more like Ernest Hemingway than Kris Kringle at this point.
The look is appropriate as he relaxes in his chambers, where—once past the sentry of a life-sized Pink Panther in a rocking chair—a visitor finds himself in a cluttered office that’s as much maritime museum as judge’s study. Enormous, detailed models of glass-enclosed sailing ships built by his father, a career Navy officer and master modeler, share space with ceremonial swords, military medals, paintings and photographs, including a couple pictures of a skinny young ensign who followed his father into the Navy and would go on to fly more than 100 combat mission in Vietnam before launching a legal career in Georgia.
Recently appointed by his colleagues to be deputy chief judge of the superior court, Bedford sat down to discuss his career and the legal philosophy that has served him for his 19 years on the bench.
Bedford, 71, spent much of his youth at the bases and on the ships where his father, a submariner, was stationed before the family moved to Oklahoma City, where he went to high school. He graduated from the University of Virginia, which he attended on a naval ROTC scholarship, and entered the Navy where—after earning his wings—he was deployed to Vietnam aboard the aircraft carrier Intrepid.
Holding up a model of the single-propeller Douglas A-1 Skyraider in which he flew as weapons officer, Bedford recalled the time he declared the Vietnam war over—in a far too public manner, and far too early.
During a mission, he said, he was listening to the Armed Forces Radio broadcast when an announcer cut in with a message from President Lyndon Johnson announcing an end of U.S. bombing of North Vietnam in October 1968.
Wanting to share the news with the rest of the plane’s four-man crew, Bedford depressed the radio pedal to announce the development.
“I got excited, and I pushed the wrong pedal and didn’t realize I was broadcasting to the whole fleet,” he recalled. “I was yelling, ‘The war’s over! The war’s over!’ Nobody else had heard [Johnson's announcement], but the entire Gulf of Tonkin heard me.”
Back on the carrier, he said, “Everybody was asking, ‘Who was that yelling about the war being over?’”
“Obviously, I was a bit premature,” he said. The war would continue for another seven years.
Bedford had also received training to be a legal officer in the Navy and, when he returned stateside, he joined a naval intelligence reserve unit and enrolled in Emory Law School. He joined the Georgia bar in 1973.
For the next 24 years, Bedford was in general litigation, handling civil and business litigation, personal injury suits, and a bit of “mostly low-level criminal defense work.”
Bedford served as the president of the Atlanta Bar Association from 1994 to 1995, and in 1996 the Bedford, Kirshner & Venker partner decided to run against Superior Court Judge Josephine Holmes Cook.
“I had sometimes been critical of some of our judges, so I thought, ‘Why not me?’”
The race went to a runoff, and between the two elections Holmes admitted to having unsealed Bedford’s 1979 divorce file and read it, outraging Bedford and many in the legal community. Bedford won the runoff with 60 percent of the vote. (In October 1996, Cook was found shot to death in her home; her son, Raynard Cook, was later convicted of her murder.)
In 2000, Bedford faced his own challenger, defeating one-time Atlanta solicitor Louise Hornsby to keep his seat. In 2008, he again beat back a challenge, this time from Keisha Lance Bottoms, now a member of the Atlanta City Council.
In addition to his duties as Presiding Santa of the Atlanta Bar Association’s Santa Project, which Bedford launched in 1993, the judge keeps himself occupied off the bench with a plethora of activities. Unlike many former military flyers who take up civilian aviation, he took up sailing and has “two boats—two too many,” berthed at Lake Lanier.
He’s also an avid turkey hunter, and since 1991 has been a member of a bicycling club that has toured Germany, France and Italy and will be going to Croatia next year.
He also helped launch a mentor program for the Veterans Court program.
“Patty [his wife] says I have too many activities,” he said.
Over his years on the bench, Bedford has been involved in several high-profile cases and made some rulings that he thinks may help explain the repeated electoral challenges he’s faced—a relatively rare phenomenon among incumbent judges.
One of his most controversial rulings involved a challenge to Georgia’s voter ID law, signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue in January 2006. Two voters, represented by former Gov. Roy Barnes, sued to block the law, arguing that they lacked the type of ID the law required.
In September of that year Bedford permanently enjoined the law, ruling that it created an unconstitutional barrier to voting.
“Nowhere in the Constitution is the legislature authorized to deny a registered voter the right to vote on any other ground, including a possession of a photo ID,” wrote Bedford.
The judge was harshly criticized by the state’s Republican leadership and called an “activist” judge.
In 2007, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed Bedford, sidestepping the constitutional arguments by ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the law.
Bedford’s courtroom was also the focal point for the turbulent 2002 trial of the Rev. Arthur Allen and 10 members of the House of Prayer, who were convicted of cruelty to children over their practice of disciplining children by beatings.
The defendants all represented themselves, and Bedford had a hard time shepherding the trial to a close.
“That trial was a three-ring circus,” said Bedford. “Pastor Allen was an interesting old man, obviously opinionated. He tried to preach to me. I said, ‘Pastor, this is not about preaching, this is about beating children.’”
At the end of the trial, Allen and four others were convicted, and Bedford gave them short jail sentences and probation.
“I tried help them,” he said, “and some of them immediately jumped ship when they got out of jail.”
After the 2005 Fulton County Courthouse shooting rampage left four people dead, including Bedford’s close friend, Judge Rowland Barnes, Bedford headed a committee to investigate court security and make recommendations to improve it.
Although the number of deputies assigned to the courthouse today is actually smaller than the number there in 2005, Bedford said he’s been very encouraged by the professionalism he’s seen since Sheriff Ted Jackson was elected to the office in 2008.
“I feel comfortable with our security arrangement,” Bedford said. “We went through a period where we felt like a lot the deputies weren’t as trained or disciplined as they should be, but that’s changed.”
Bedford was also involved in a highly publicized dustup with Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard in 2006, when the DA attempted to speak to jurors following the acquittal of a rape suspect. Bedford ordered Howard not to speak to them and, when Howard refused, Bedford had a deputy handcuff him and remove him from the courtroom.
Howard was incensed by the incident, and two years later—during Bedford’s re-election campaign—Howard stoutly denied he had a rapprochement with Bedford. In a press release, the DA described his treatment as “one of the most sinister, ignominious and personally painful actions that I have witnessed or experienced as a lawyer and as a person.”
Bedford said he and Howard have since worked together and, as far as he is concerned, the incident is history.
“We get along fine,” said Bedford. “It was never a personal issue for me. He’s been very helpful and supportive of the folks he’s assigned to my courtroom, and he’s worked with me on some other issues, which I do appreciate.”
Bedford’s comments were forwarded to Howard, who did not offer a response.
Asked whether he prefers handling criminal or civil cases, Bedford said each had its good and bad points.
“I don’t like selecting juries in criminal cases,” he said. “It’s tedious, dragged out and contentious. But as for trying cases, I like criminal cases: they’re all fairly similar, and there are not a lot of different motions … [just] motions to suppress, stuff like that.”
“On civil cases,” he said, “jury selection goes much smoother, much more relaxed. The challenge in civil cases is all the pretrial motions practice … that can go on and on.”
Bedford said he tries to be as cordial as possible to everyone who appears in his courtroom (although he’s known for seizing cellphones that ring in court, making the owner pay a $50 fine to a charity of their choice to get it back).
“One of the things I am real strict about is people trying to perpetrate a fraud on the court, or take advantage of the system to abuse it,” he said. “The courts are here to resolve disputes; if people are lying and cheating and stealing, it becomes abusive … that’s the kind of stuff that really bothers me in civil litigation. I feel that creates a bad taste in the public’s mouth for the courts. People need to respect the courts; if we lose that respect, I think the whole system is at risk.”
On Bedford’s desk rests a glass-topped display case holding an array of finely crafted fountain pens—the type he customarily uses—including a heavy silver pen that he used as a student at Emory Law School. The judge constantly takes notes in court, he said, keeping his own handwritten record that he often consults rather than asking the court reporter to read something back.
Bedford had some advice for lawyers appearing before him.
“If you see me stop writing and lay my pen down, that’s not a good sign,” he said. “That means you’ve lost me.”