The Presiding Judge


A look back at the life of a fellow presiding justice in the neighboring state of Alabama

Of all those remarkable individuals I have met during my 40 years in local politics and the state judiciary, far and away the most interesting is a former governor of Alabama, John Patterson. His is the story from which movies are made, beginning with the assassination of his father, Albert, a candidate for Alabama’s attorney general in 1954. Having promised to “clean up” the graft and corruption in Phenix City, just across the border from Fort Benning, Georgia, he was shot and killed as a part of a conspiracy involving one of his opponents. Indeed, books were written and a movie, The Phenix City Story, all of which serve as documentation of the events.

Patterson, the son, picked up his father’s baton, and at age 34 was elected to the Office of Attorney General, adopting his father’s platform. Through his efforts, the gambling, prostitution, and political corruption came to an end during his tenure in the office. His efforts laid the groundwork for his election as Governor in the next term. One of his opponents was George Wallace, the segregationist, who would later say that the only state election he ever lost was to Patterson. In 1969, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals was established, becoming the second such court in the country. The first such had been established by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1967. To date, no other state in the United States has established a specialized appellate court.

 I had no idea of this history until Governor Ned McWherter in 1987 asked me to serve as an associate judge for the Tennessee court to replace Charles O’Brien who had been promoted to the Supreme Court. O’Brien was the husband of State Senator Anna Belle Clement O’Brien, sister of former Governor Frank Clement. By the early 1990s, I was a veteran on a court made up of nine judges, three from each of the Grand Divisions of the State. By then, our Presiding Judge, Knoxvillian Joe Duncan, had retired and the other representative from East Tennessee, John Byers, had announced plans to do so. In 1994, I had become the senior judge in the Eastern Section and by 1997, the senior judge on the entire court. My colleagues elected me to serve as Presiding Judge at the age of 48. By that time, the judges of Alabama CCA and those of our own CCA decided to have joint conferences periodically. So, when it was our turn to host the Alabama judges,
I helped plan a joint reception and program for Nashville. That is when I began to learn more of the career of John Patterson, who served as Presiding Judge of his court.

Like almost everyone in the Solid South after the Civil War and for 100 years after, Patterson was a Democrat and an avowed segregationist. Elected governor in 1958, he supported John F. Kennedy for president in 1960 and, in the process, became a confidante to the new president. As successor to Eisenhower, JFK inherited the prior administration’s plan to invade Cuba, which, at JFK’s request, Patterson supported, a plan developed by the CIA. The failure of the invasion came to be called the Bay of Pigs Fiasco, for which JFK issued an apology to the nation and became more popular for it. 

Patterson was also on the frontline as to the Freedom Riders travels beginning in Nashville and continuing into Alabama. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sent aide John Seigenthaler, editor of the Tennessean and later a founder of USA Today, to Montgomery as an observer. According to Patterson, who had promised safety to the segregation protestors but declined to accept a phone call by JFK, the city’s police commissioner betrayed him by idly standing by, delaying any involvement during an attack by the Ku Klux Klan. John Lewis, a Freedom Rider who later was elected to Congress, was injured in the fray. For Seigenthaler, a giant in his support of the judicial branch of government, he was knocked out and hospitalized for his efforts to maintain peace. Patterson, Seigenthaler, and Lewis were extensively interviewed in a 2010 documentary about the Freedom Riders and the violence they incurred in Montgomery and elsewhere. Patterson, precluded by the state constitution from serving successive terms, lost in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in his 1966 race against Wallace. Perhaps because the two men had mended fences by Governor Wallace’s last term, he appointed Patterson to the Alabama CCA in 1984. 

When Patterson spoke at the Alabama-Tennessee conference in Nashville our court had arranged, he reflected on his career in his state’s highest office, mixing humor with humility. He began by announcing that his biggest regret as governor was his consent to the publication of his speeches, many of which supported segregation, a view he had long since abandoned. On the lighter side, he told of his tour, as Governor, of the new prison that had been built in his state. Hungry as he walked through the lunchroom before the prisoners arrived, he smelled cornbread and asked for a piece, and then another. When his tour ended, the warden asked if he had questions. “What’s your biggest problem,” Patterson inquired. “That’s easy,” said the warden, “Most in this prison are young men, and you know what they are always thinking about!” “What can you do about that,” the Governor asked. “We give them drugs,” was the reply. The Governor then made the mistake of asking if they took their meds voluntarily. “No,” said the warden matter-of-factly, “we put it in the cornbread.” This was only one of his tall tales, all of which put smiles on the faces of those assembled.

In 2003, six years after his retirement from judicial office, Patterson was called upon to preside as Special Chief Justice over the appeal of Alabama’s elected Chief Justice Roy Moore, who had been removed from office for refusing to follow an order by the federal courts. Of course, Patterson’s Special Supreme Court upheld Moore’s removal. He remained a public figure afterward. A half-century after the Montgomery incident, he spoke with admiration of the Freedom Riders: “It meant so much to the state that they came here and did what they did, under grave, adverse circumstances.” In 2008, while continuing to express regret for his opposition to the integration of schools when governor, he publicly endorsed Barack Obama for the presidency. In the same year, his biography, Nobody but the People, was published. On June 4 of this year, John Patterson, the country’s last living governor of the 1950s, died at his home in the small town of Goldville, Alabama, three months short of his 100th birthday.    

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