Originally created 12/30/04

Pioneer to lead court of appeals



Waynesboro native John H. Ruffin Jr. will take yet another step in his pioneering legal career when he is sworn in next week as the first black chief judge of the Court of Appeals of Georgia.

Known for his dry wit, keen intelligence and concisely written opinions, Judge Ruffin began his legal career in Augusta.

"A lot of people talk about public service, but this guy lived the life," said former State Rep. Ben Allen, who credits Judge Ruffin with leading the battle for civil rights here and throughout Georgia.

It was a career that almost didn't happen.

"I didn't decide I wanted to be a lawyer until I was a junior in college. I had no judicial aspirations at all," Judge Ruffin said in a telephone interview. He said he chose a legal career because of the civil rights movement.

"I thought it would be the best contribution I could make."

Judge Ruffin was admitted to the Georgia Bar on July 5, 1961, but he wouldn't be invited into the Augusta Bar Association until 10 years later. He didn't wait for acceptance from the local bar before launching into civil rights work.

In the 1960s, he challenged the treatment blacks received from police and the system that allowed for all-white grand juries. He successfully battled against at-large representation in local government and won equal treatment for black city police officers.

Many consider his best-known success the Acree case in which he filed the 1964 federal lawsuit to force the desegregation of Augusta schools.

It was an eight-year effort. The circuit judge constantly ruled against him, forcing him to repeatedly appeal, said Augusta attorney Pete Fletcher, who took over representation of the school board in 1972.

For all those years of work, Mr. Ruffin's bill was only $10,000, Mr. Fletcher said. It must have been a financial hardship to stay with the case for nearly a decade, he said.

"He was always a gentleman and always professional even with all he was going through," Mr. Fletcher said.

When Augusta attorney Leon Larke started practicing law in 1980, he said, Judge Ruffin was someone to look up to.

"I always found him to be a very conscientious individual ... intelligent and with a passion for the law," he said.

District Attorney Danny Craig said he always marveled at Judge Ruffin's courtroom abilities.

"He was certainly a pioneer in the legal profession in Georgia, but more important, he was a wonderful role model for all those who have had the privilege of knowing him," he said.

Mr. Allen, who worked with Judge Ruffin for a couple of years, remembers the judge's stories of his affiliation with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Then an attorney, Judge Ruffin would try civil rights cases in south Georgia where people had never seen a black lawyer, Mr. Allen said.

Sometimes he would take his pastor on those trips, Mr. Allen said. A little spiritual protection was a good thing, Mr. Allen remembered the judge saying.

"He understood his calling. If you can rise to the level of accepting it as a calling, you forget self and think about others," Mr. Allen said.

"His handprint in terms of civil rights is all over this city. He is Mr. Civil Rights."

Mr. Allen still sees that dedication in Judge Ruffin. As an example, he cited a recent appeals court opinion the judge wrote in the case of a gay mother. Her children were taken, not because she was an unfit parent but apparently, Mr. Allen said, because she is gay. The appeals court reversed the case, and the mother and children were reunited in time for Christmas.

"I think that speaks volumes. While I don't know how he may personally feel about homosexuality and lifestyles ... he understands the importance of civil rights. He has stayed true to the civil rights mode that he was brought up in," Mr. Allen said.

As a lawyer and on the bench, Judge Ruffin has been one to teach lessons. Mr. Allen said one of his first trials after law school was opposite Judge Ruffin.

"He beat me up and down that courtroom," Mr. Allen said. When he asked Judge Ruffin why he had been so hard, Judge Ruffin responded, "But if I hadn't, you wouldn't learn."

Mr. Allen said he did learn - not to be intimidated and to always be prepared.

Judge Ruffin was the first black man appointed to the Augusta Judicial Circuit's Superior Court bench in 1986.

Judge Ruffin impressed attorney Patrick J. Claiborne with his precision and his close attention to what the lawyers had to say.

"And I think he was genuinely concerned about the people who came before him," Mr. Claiborne said.

Chief Judge William D. Jennings III said that when he began presiding over cases in Richmond County Civil and Magistrate Court, he went to Judge Ruffin for advice. He once asked Judge Ruffin when he might stop feeling theatrical wearing a robe.

"He looked at me a long time and said, 'Well, the day you feel comfortable in a robe is the day you need to take it off,"' Judge Jennings said.

In August 1994, Judge Ruffin was appointed to the Court of Appeals of Georgia. At 10 a.m. Wednesday, he will be sworn in as its chief judge.

The judge said the position is really just an honorific title he will hold for two years.

It was a casual assessment almost as self-deprecating as he would describe the man who will take the oath Wednesday.

"He's witty, he enjoys living. He knows you can't take any of this too seriously, that you shouldn't be ashamed of laughing - even laughing at yourself," he said.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

John H. Ruffin Jr.

1934: Born in Waynesboro1957: Grad-uated from Morehouse College

1960: Grad-uated from Howard University School of Law

1961: Admitted to practice law in Georgia

1986: Appointed to the Augusta Judicial Circuit's Superior Court bench

1994: Appointed to the Court of Appeals of Georgia