Longtime judges and attorneys struggled for words Monday as news spread that former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harris Hines was killed in a car wreck Sunday afternoon.
Those who worked alongside Hines over his decades on the bench remembered the 75-year-old as a remarkable jurist and an even better friend.
Colleagues praised his legal mind and metered demeanor when in robe, but said it was the way he conducted himself outside of work that made him truly special.
“What a guy,” said Tom Charron, Cobb’s Superior Court administrator who served as the county’s district attorney for 22 years. “What a wonderful human being he is. You couldn’t know Harris without feeling that you were a close friend of his. And he made everybody feel that way.”
Hines’ longtime colleagues on the Georgia Supreme Court offered a heartfelt tribute ahead of Monday morning’s arguments.
“Chief Justice Hines was one of Georgia’s great lawyers, judges and public servants,” Presiding Justice David Nahmias said through tears. “His name and his work will be recalled forever in the law of Georgia, but Harris Hines was an even greater man. Because of the love and kindness he so freely extended to others, he was loved and cherished by every member of this court, by our staff and by just about every person who ever met him.”
Nahmias said the court’s justices recently lost Hines as a colleague when he retired at the end of August, but said they expected to still have him as a friend for years to come.
“Losing him yesterday leaves a hole in our hearts that will be hard to fill,” he said.
Nahmias spoke on behalf of Chief Justice Harold Melton, Hines’ protégé on the court. Having Melton speak publicly so soon after Hines’ death would have been too great a burden, Nahmias told the court.
Melton thanked Nahmias for his remarks, his voice quivering as he reminded those in attendance to be good to one another.
LOCALS REFLECT ON HINES’ LEGACY
Hines had been a judge for most of his life, Charron said, but he was quick to correct those who addressed him as such outside the courtroom.
“No, it’s Harris,” he would say.
On the bench, there was nobody better, Charron said.
“He was such a gentleman and such a great judge to try a case before,” he said, adding Hines compelled attorneys to bring their A-game because he knew the law and expected the same from them. “You hear the term judicial temperament — he had it.”
Former Gov. Roy Barnes said the two became close in 1974. Then 26, Barnes had his eye on a state senate seat while Hines, a young attorney, was appointed to a vacancy on Cobb’s State Court by then-Gov. Jimmy Carter.
In the 44 years since, Hines would go on to serve on Cobb’s Superior Court and then the Supreme Court of Georgia. He was named Chief Justice in September of 2016 and retired from the state’s highest court on Aug. 31 after 23 years of decisions.
But Barnes said his friend never let any of the success he enjoyed go to his head.
“I never knew of anyone who said anything ill of Harris Hines. That’s a testament to him,” Barnes said, calling the former justice’s passing a tremendous loss to those who knew him but an even bigger loss to the county and the state. “He had a great heart. He loved people and people loved him.”
The former governor’s sentiments were echoed by Cobb Superior Court Senior Judge Adele Grubbs, who knew Hines for nearly 50 years.
“I tried many, many cases in front of him,” Grubbs said. “He was just one of those solid pillars of the community that you could depend on.”
As Hines continued his ascent to superior court and eventually the state Supreme Court, Grubbs said he remained gracious and respectful.
“He went to the (Supreme) Court, but he never acted like he did,” she said. “When you saw him, he was still the same person that he was the first time you met him. He never let it go to his head. He was just level … Some people get obnoxious when they get power. He didn’t. He was just always the same.”
ALWAYS A STRAIGHT SHOOTER
Speaking to the MDJ in August after hearing his final round of oral arguments, Hines said studying the law kept his mind sharp.
As he neared the end of his 50-year legal career, all he could think about was how to extend it, mulling from his cluttered desk the possibility of returning to the bench as a senior judge or taking on cases from the other side of the dais as an attorney.
Among those in attendance his final day on the bench was his wife Helen.
“I think after 50 years he’s due a rest,” she said of his retirement. “And after sitting through court today you can probably see why.”
Harris Hines said he looked forward to spending more time with his wife, children and grandchildren, but joked that Mrs. Hines would probably prefer he keep working for as long as possible.
Marietta Attorney Hylton Dupree, a close friend of the couple, said the two had great sense of humor.
“One time Helen told him as he was fixing to make a speech, she said, ‘Now don’t get up there and try to be funny — because you’re not,’” Dupree recalled with a chuckle.
Helen Hines was riding in the SUV during the wreck that killed her husband Sunday, but is expected to make a full recovery.
The two had been married about half a century. They moved to Marietta in 1971 and together had two children and four grandchildren.
Marietta school board member Allison Gruehn grew up with their daughter, Mary Margaret, after her family moved to Marietta from east Cobb when she was in the fifth grade.
She remembered Harris Hines as warm and inviting, the type of person who wouldn’t think twice to go out of his way if it meant helping others.
“He treated everyone that way, not just people he had been friends with a long time,” Gruehn said. “It’s truly devastating. I’m still finding it hard to believe.”
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-GA, called Harris Hines a Cobb County legend whose service on the bench made a positive impact on the entire state.
“He always did what was right,” Isakson said Monday. “I’m greatly saddened by the sudden passing of my friend. Dianne and I are holding his entire family in our prayers and especially his beloved Helen as she recovers from additional physical injuries from this tragic accident.”
Dupree said he and Hines began practicing law together in 1969 or 70.
“When I think of Harris Hines, I think of integrity,” Dupree said. “State Court, Superior Court, Supreme Court — the entire time and he’s never wavered from being a straight shooter.”
Cobb and Georgia, Dupree said, lost someone special Sunday afternoon.