Friday, December 31, 2004
All quiet in the court
George W. Harris Jr. possessed a determination that overrode society's influence. Today, he retires as judge for the 23rd Judicial District.
One weekday in the early 1990s, when Salem attorney Greg Phillips was an assistant prosecutor in Roanoke, he saw a courtroom quieted in record time.
When noisy spectators ignored the bailiff's warning, the deputy removed the sitting judge's nameplate from the bench and replaced it with the nameplate of General District Judge George W. Harris Jr.
"You just heard silence and despair," Phillips said. "And the bailiff just winked at me. But that's the type of effect Judge Harris had."
Today, lawbreakers throughout the 23rd Judicial District may breathe a sigh of relief as Harris retires at the age of 68. But friends and colleagues say the loss of the Roanoke Valley's first and only black judge will be a resounding one.
Beneath his gruff exterior, they say, is a kind man who learned through his own experiences that everyone should be treated equally. But while he will give many wrongdoers a second chance, there are no third chances with Harris and few excuses good enough for giving up.
"He is his own person," attorney Jeff Dorsey said. "He keeps his own counsel, he doesn't suffer fools lightly, and he is courageous and kind - and those things all wrapped up into one person are unusual."
Harris did not return multiple telephone calls for this story, so it is hard to guess what drove him to the success he has achieved. But judging from his biographical history, he possessed a determination that overrode society's influence.
Harris graduated from all-black Dunbar Senior High School in Lynchburg in 1955 and was one of the first blacks to attend the University of Virginia.
Social pressures at UVa during the late 1950s forced him to transfer out after two years.
At Virginia Union University in Richmond in 1960, he was arrested for trespassing during a civil rights sit-in, but his conviction was later overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court.
With a bachelor's degree in business administration, Harris set out to find a job, but the only job he was offered was as an assembly line worker at General Electric. Instead, he decided to go to law school.
Three years later, in 1967, Harris had obtained his law degree and passed the bar exam on the first try. He set up a general practice in Roanoke, taking over the practice of a black lawyer who had died.
"Within a relatively short period, he became a very popular lawyer for people who needed an all-around eager, interested lawyer," Circuit Judge Clifford Weckstein said.
Fellow lawyers came to realize that when they appeared in court opposite Harris, they were in for a challenge.
"He was a really good, hardworking lawyer who cared for his clients," said Circuit Judge Robert "Pat" Doherty. "I always had my hands full on any kind of case with him, whether a criminal case, civil case or chancery case."
Outside the courtroom, Harris quickly became an influential member of the community, serving on multiple boards. In the early 1970s, he joined NAACP lawyers in federal court to force Roanoke officials to desegregate the public schools.
After gaining a reputation as a tireless adversary of the school board and school administration, Harris was named to the Roanoke School Board in 1980.
"I think if a devil's advocate is needed, yes, I'll be one," he said in a 1980 interview with The Roanoke Times. "If I feel that basically the board is doing the best it can, I guess you could classify me an establishment man."
But few could really call Harris an "establishment man." He remained a watchdog of the school administration and, when it was time to hire a new superintendent, was one of a minority on the board who voted against hiring Frank Tota.
When Harris was considered for a judgeship, he received the honor of being endorsed by both the Roanoke and the Salem-Roanoke County bar associations, something that does not happen with regularity. Even Tota agreed that a judgeship would suit Harris.
"He is very analytical, very firm, but very fair," Tota said in 1985. "His bark can sometimes be worse than his bite."
Criminal defendants often dread the day they are scheduled to appear in Harris' courtroom, for his reputation precedes him.
"I know all my clients here are terrified of Judge Harris," Greg Phillips said.
But lawyers who regularly practice in front of Harris say their clients should fear him only if they know they have done wrong and they are not ready to admit it.
"If you go in and try to make every whiny excuse in the world, yeah, he can be pretty tough," said Salem attorney Charlie Phillips, Greg Phillips' father.
Harris' demand for accountability is not limited to the accused who appear before him. Colleagues say Harris is known for refusing to look the other way when police officers overstep their boundaries, and that he is more likely than other judges in the valley to dismiss a case because of police wrongdoing.
"I think he takes the Bill of Rights very seriously, and the violation of an individual's constitutional rights is a serious matter to him," attorney Ray Ferris said. "He insists on police good conduct and does not tolerate misconduct or the appearance of overreaching."
Some suggest that it was Harris' upbringing in a segregated world that leads him to closely examine the facts in every matter, regardless of who is telling them.
"You cannot help but bring your life experiences to the bench, and, quite frankly in my view, one of the advantages of being an African-American judge is your experiences are going to be different from other judges," attorney Melvin Hill said.
Harris probably could have risen to the circuit court bench, but he never expressed interest. Weckstein said Harris didn't wish to deal with the tedium of equitable distribution in divorce cases.
Greg Phillips added, "He has more day-to-day contact with people in general district court and can make a bigger difference on a street level."
Harris has been described as a lawyer's judge, one who invites attorneys to his office to shoot the bull about sports, fishing, hunting, current events and home life - "pure storytelling and conviviality," Weckstein said.
But when court is in session, the same lawyers who joked with Harris just moments before are subject to his professional expectations, and may see their clients thrown in jail.
Once, Ferris even found himself in jail.
One day in May 1988, Ferris, then a prosecutor, showed up for court a half-hour late. Harris responded by reducing the defendant's felony charge to a misdemeanor.
"Judge, you don't have the authority to do that," Ferris said. "Either dismiss the case or certify it."
Ferris was warned, then found in contempt and thrown in jail. Sixteen years later, he says he learned quite a lesson from Harris that day.
"At the time, in my mind I thought I was the smartest guy in the world," he said, "but looking back I was very green and I didn't handle that matter with the temperance that I should have. I acted very poorly toward a judge who I have a tremendous amount of respect for."
Ferris and other attorneys say they respect Harris most for his ability to give defendants and the commonwealth a fair trial, for his tendency to tell it like it is and his refusal to give people a figurative crutch to lean on if he believes they can make it on their own.
"If you have a good record, he will give you a good chance to either keep your record clean or do certain things to improve your life," Charlie Phillips said. "If you don't do what he expects of you, he's going to impose probably a more severe punishment than he would have imposed initially because you've sort of broken his trust."
In March 2003, Harris announced that he would retire, but he changed his mind at the end of that year. He has never publicly stated a reason. On Dec. 13, he again announced he would retire. His six-year term was scheduled to expire in 2009.
Harris' peers guess that he will sit by designation in Roanoke County and Salem until his replacement is selected by the Virginia General Assembly during the upcoming session.
The Roanoke and Salem-Roanoke County bar associations have received letters of interest from several people, including Salem Commonwealth's Attorney Fred King, attorney Tom Roe and Roanoke County assistant prosecutors Marian Kelley and Rick Buchanan. Bar presidents Will Lindsey and Elizabeth Dillon said both associations will meet in early January to make their endorsements.
After the vacancy is filled, friends say Harris will probably serve as a substitute judge and spend time on his top hobbies: fishing, watching sports and hanging around Brambleton Imports on Saturdays.
"I expect him to be around and be active. I really don't know what he's going to do all day," Weckstein said. "If he's just going to be around the house up to no good, then he might as well go to the car wash [Brambleton Imports]."
Some attorneys don't want to accept the fact that they won't find Harris in his office anymore.
Said Dorsey: "A bunch of us lawyers told him we're going to come over and wake him up and put a robe on him and drag him to court."