The State Bar of Georgia has given its highest accolade to retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh Thompson.
“We are honored to show our appreciation to Justice Thompson for his career of service as a lawyer, jurist and public servant and his dedication to upholding the rule of law under the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Georgia and the foundational ideal of equal justice for all,” State Bar Immediate Past President Patrick O’Connor, of Oliver Maner in Savannah, said as he made the presentation at the group’s midyear meeting last weekend, according to a news release.
Thompson retired a year ago after 47 years in the legal profession, including 45 on the bench serving every kind of court.
As he packed up his chambers at the high court, Thompson in December 2016 shared with the Daily Report some of the folksy metaphors and down-to-earth wisdom that earned him the affection and respect of members of the bar. He compared judges on the high court to tools, likened their deliberations to a bag race, and attributed his own success to availability.
“I think people saw things in me I didn’t realize I had,” Thompson said in the interview. “I was always lucky to be standing around on the platform when the train was leaving. I had friends who’d say, ‘Get on board,’ and I’d say ‘OK.’”
His list of those who helped him started with the U.S. government for giving him a “war orphan” scholarship after his father was killed in World War II.
Thompson attended Emory University in Atlanta but also took classes at the much smaller Oglethorpe University, where his favorite subject was business law. He graduated from Mercer University law school in 1969, then returned with his bride to his hometown of Milledgeville to practice. In 1971 the Milledgeville Board of Aldermen appointed him to a part-time job as judge of the city court. He continued his practice and began to teach business law at Georgia College. President Jimmy Carter, who was governor of Georgia from 1971 to 1975, appointed Thompson to another part-time judicial position on the Baldwin County Court, which later became the state court.
“I finally decided that I either needed to practice law full time or judge full time. I heard the siren sound of that bar trying to get me to run,” Thompson said in the interview, remembering lawyer friends who encouraged him to take on a sitting judge. “And I did and lost.”
A few months later, in 1979, Gov. George Busbee appointed him to a new position on the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Superior Court. He served there until 1994, when Gov. Zell Miller appointed him to the Supreme Court.
When Thompson announced his retirement plans in July 2016, lawyers praised his judicial demeanor, his kindness and his ability to bring out the best in them. Past bar and Georgia Trial Lawyers Association president Robin Frazer Clark called him a “gentle giant of a role model.”
Thompson made it a habit at oral arguments to take a moment to thank all the lawyers for their presentations and tell them their work helps the court to make better decisions. He closed with this blessing: “Be safe as you travel home.”