Ga. Supreme Court Justice P. Harris Hines
Ga. Supreme Court Justice P. Harris Hines (John Disney/Staff)

Georgia Supreme Court Justice P. Harris Hines—who will become chief justice in a ceremony Friday—is known for his gentle manners and friendly nature. But as he looked back on his nearly half-century legal career during an interview in his chambers last month, he revealed a lesser known side: He’s competitive.

Hines said he took to heart a tip from his baseball coach at Grady High School, the late Erk Russell, who would go on to national championship football teams at the University of Georgia as defensive coordinator and Georgia Southern as head coach. Russell became famous for his practical advice with such quotes as “the best way to win a game is not to lose it.”

“I’m 14 years old and I’m just walking up to bat at Candler Park,” Hines recalled. The coach called him over. “I know they say you ought to be relaxed at bat, but I always thought I did better when I was bearing down,” Hines recalled Russell saying.

“That stuck with me,” said Hines, now 73. “I always did better when I was bearing down.”

He’s not really talking about baseball. He’s talking about winning trials and later winning judicial elections. But it still sounds like he’s talking sports.

“If they’re going to keep score, try to win,” Hines said. “If they’re not going to keep score, fine, go out there and have a good time.”

Hines has done plenty of both since graduating from Emory University law school in 1968. He recalled the moment he learned he had passed the bar exam. He was at the home of his then-girlfriend, Helen Holmes Hill, now his wife of 47 years. His father, James Hines, was having his regular late night coffee at the landmark Plaza Drugs on Ponce de Leon Avenue near the family home off Highland Avenue with a doctor friend who worked late at Emory hospital. His dad was 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,” he recalled.

She did in March of 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 the governor, who in just two years would be elected President Jimmy Carter.

Hines didn’t know Carter, but he had friends who did, mostly through 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 have made a concerted effort to reach unanimous decisions “as much as possible to give clear guidance.” Still they differ and dissent 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.”

When Hines officially becomes chief on Friday, he will have one year and eight months to “bear down” in the top spot before he reaches the state’s mandatory retirement age of 75 for appellate judges.