Socrates said four things belong to a judge: to hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly, and to decide impartially.
For Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harris Hines, three of those things are inherent attributes. The other, Hines asserted, “Takes a little talent.”
“Truthfully, three of those things don’t take any real particular talent, but to answer wisely, that may do so,” Hines said. “And I’ve always tried to do that.”
Since Gov. Zell Miller appointed him to the Georgia Supreme Court on July 26, 1995, Hines has heard, considered, decided and answered questions of law in cases brought before the state’s highest court.
“Of the seven members on the court at that time, two had been appointed by former Gov. Joe Frank Harris and five were appointed by Gov. Miller,” Hines said. “I came on as the last one of that, and I think I was the most junior judge on this court for about 10 years.”
Eighteen years after his appointment to the court in August 2013, Hines was sworn in as the court’s presiding justice, the number two spot on the court.
As presiding justice, Hines is in charge of the court in Chief Justice Hugh Thompson’s absence. Recently, Thompson announced he will be retiring at the end of the year, which opens the door for Hines to potentially become Georgia Supreme Court’s next Chief Justice.
Hines said he is excited about that possibility, but he’s not getting ahead of himself.
“I still have to be elected by my colleagues and friends on the court,” Hines said. “They make that ultimate decision. But if I’m lucky enough to be elected by them, it’s certainly going to be the highlight and pinnacle of my legal career which started many, many years ago.”
FROM LAWYER TO JUDGE TO JUSTICE
As a Georgia Supreme Court justice, a Superior Court judge and as a State Court judge, Hines has rendered decisions in hundreds of cases, but before he began deciding cases, he was a young lawyer working diligently to win cases for his clients.
“One of my first cases as a young attorney, I tried with a dear friend of mine Bob Grayson, and the issue was who owned a dog,” Hines said and laughed as he remembered the case.
The case wasn’t a major case or a highly publicized case, but like all cases Hines was involved in, it was an important case.
A man had seen a Bassett hound at the home of Hines and Grayson’s client and claimed his dog had escaped and the dog in the client’s yard belonged to him.
“We called it a Trover for Rover,” said Grayson, a Marietta attorney. “When the case was tried before Judge Dorothy Robinson, we thought we were well prepared as we had photographs of the dog. We did not have the advantages of today’s technology and we were inexperienced. The other side had color movies. It was nip and tuck and went down to the wire.
“Finally, Harris asked the client if there was anything else that would show the dog was his. He said his dog had a cut on his right front paw. The dog was brought into the courtroom and placed on the judge’s bench to be examined. Sure enough, he had a scar on the paw, but the other side argued that was quite common with dogs and proved nothing. Again, Harris asked the client if there was anything further he could offer. At that point, the client pulled out a wallet that would make George Costanza’s look small. He looked through it and pulled out an old yellowed piece of paper, which turned out to be the vet bill for the injured paw. The case was won because Harris would not quit until the job was done.”
Hines was born at Fort McPherson, where his father was stationed during World War II. His mother was an Atlanta school teacher.
He attended school in Atlanta and graduated from Grady High School in 1961. He graduated from Emory University in 1965 and received his Juris Doctorate degree from Emory University School of Law in 1968. He was admitted to the State Bar of Georgia that same year.
Hines’ legal career began when he spent a year as a law clerk for Judge E. A. Wright, Senior Judge of the Civil Court of Fulton County. He then joined the firm of Edwards, Bentley, Awtrey & Parker of Marietta as an associate and later became a partner.
He moved to Marietta in 1971.
In 1974, Hines was appointed to the State Court of Cobb County by then-Gov. Jimmy Carter. In 1982, he was elected to the Superior Court of the Cobb Judicial Circuit. After serving as a Superior Court judge for 13 years, he took his place on the Georgia Supreme Court in 1995.
In addition to being presiding justice, Hines chairs the Supreme Court’s Justice for Children Committee. He is the Court’s liaison to the Institute of Continuing Judicial Education, the General Assembly, and the Office of Bar Admissions. He is vice chair of the Judicial Council and chair of its Policy and Legislative Committee. He was appointed in 2015 as a member of the Judicial, District Attorney and Circuit Public Defender Compensation Commission.
“He was a good lawyer and a better judge,” Grayson said. “That’s a compliment because he was a very good lawyer. And if he’s chosen as the next chief justice, I don’t think the Supreme Court could have a finer chief justice because he’s honest, courteous and smart.”
Hines has heard and considered all types of cases as a Supreme Court Justice, and he’s witnessed how the judicial system and laws have evolved during his time on the bench. Because of these changes, Hines is advocating for more support for the state’s lower courts.
“The Supreme Court is a court of last resort,” Hines said. “Our courts of first resort really need some nurturing and help in many ways. Those are the courts that most people will come into contact with. A very limited number of people will actually come before the Supreme Court of Georgia. Certainly our decisions affect all Georgians, but I think we need to make sure that our other courts have the assets they need to deal with the truly large amount of cases that come before them.”
Hines said this is particularly true in Georgia’s Superior Courts.
“When I was on the Superior Court, most everybody was represented by counsel,” he said. “Today, there are a lot, a lot, a lot of pro se — individuals representing themselves in court — which is a tremendous burden on our Superior Courts. So, I think every Superior Court judge should have a law clerk. When you have a pro se party in front of you, they’re struggling, and that makes the struggle with the court pretty strong.”
Hines’ focus has also been on the juvenile court system.
“If we can help young people get started right or correct them when they step out of bounds a little bit, we can save money and tears down the road,” he said. “I would like to see us get to a situation where we have a full-time juvenile court for all of our circuits and move toward full-time judges. We have some extremely good part-time judges who are splendid people, but I would like to see the juvenile court system with full-time judges.”
Hines has also witnessed how time and evolving laws have changed the Supreme Court. Today, he said, the Supreme Court is engaged in a great deal of administrative responsibilities.
“One of the things that has concerned me, is more and more of our time, is taken up with administrative matters,” Hines said. “And, the higher up the mountain you go, the more administrative responsibilities you have. I’m becoming quite aware of those demands both in time and in energy.”
Hines, who supports the upcoming change from seven to nine justices on the Supreme Court, said that the change will be good for the court.
“The Constitution of the state of Georgia has actually allowed for nine justices on this court since 1945,” Hines said. “The legislation was passed last year, but it didn’t take a constitutional amendment because the constitution already provided for that. Georgia has grown to become the eighth most populous state in the Union. We have over 10 million people, so I think nine members will be good.”
Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin, an attorney, knows Hines well and says, “Adjectives like integrity, intelligent, strong community person, strong family man, leader in his Presbyterian church, friendly, courteous are just a few of the terms that describe Justice Hines’ day-to-day influence on those around him.”
As I have served on many community boards with Harris and the fact that our families are close friends, I have been privileged to frequently observed the exceptional character attributes of Harris. He touches in a positive manner a multitude of lives in his giving ways, not only in Marietta and Cobb but throughout the state.”
Former Gov. Roy Barnes used similar words to describe Hines.
“Justice Harris Hines is one of the finest and most courteous men I have ever known,” Barnes said. “I have known him since he came to Marietta. He was a great lawyer, and great State and Superior Court Judge, and will make a wonderful Chief Justice. He knows the law, and has common sense, a rare combination. I am proud of him, and all of Cobb County and the people of the state of Georgia should be proud of him. I wish him and his family the very best.”
“Harris has a mixture of personal qualities,” Grayson said. “Many don’t know he was a fine running back at Grady High School under coach Erk Russell (before Erk went to UGA and Georgia Southern). He is small, but extremely tenacious. You do not want to physically engage him. At the same time he is generous and kind and does not look for trouble. He is absolutely unpretentious. He came from modest circumstances where he was taught that he was no better than anyone, but no worse either.”
When Hines takes off his judicial robe, the most enjoyable thing to do is spend time with his family and quail hunt, he said.
“I enjoy time with my family because I’ve been blessed with a wonderful wife, Helen, two children and grandchildren,” he said. “I like to read about golf. I used to like to play, but my backswing didn’t just leave me, it disappeared. And I really enjoy quail hunting.”
Hines is married to the former Helen Holmes Hill of Talladega, Alabama. They have two children, Mary Margaret and James Harris (“Hap”) and four grandchildren.