Remembering Justice Weltner

by Thomas W. Thrash, Jr.

Storied Third Branch | Archive
The Storied Third Branch

Published November 2012

I approach the task of writing a remembrance of Charles Weltner with a sense of great humility and considerable inadequacy. But the opportunity to write such a remembrance is one that I could not refuse. Charles Weltner was to me – like so many others – a source of inspiration by word and example, and a seminal influence upon my life. The highest compliment that I ever received was that Charles Weltner thought that I should eventually devote myself to public service.

I first met Charles Longstreet Weltner in 1978 when I was a young Assistant District Attorney assigned to his courtroom in the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia. I was two years out of law school. He was entering a new phase of his professional life after a political career that had soared to the mountaintop and then crashed to the valley below. I was a recent refugee from the world of corporate litigation, having the most fun of my life prosecuting crime. I had the great good fortune to appear before Judge Weltner in court on a daily basis; and to sit in his chambers and listen to him talk about the law, history, politics, and life in general. He could talk about anything. He was always interesting, often hilariously funny, and just a joyous person to be around.

To a young lawyer like me, Charles Weltner was an inspirational example of the possibility of enlightened and courageous public service. He was a man of honesty, integrity, and principle. In 1964, he was the only Congressman from the deep South to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a time of great conflict, strife, and bloodshed in our native South he famously said, “I will give up my office before I give up my principles. I cannot compromise with hate.” He refused to run for reelection on a ticket headed by an avowed segregationist. Later attempts to run for office were met with disappointment until he was appointed as a Superior Court Judge.

Judge Weltner’s intellectual curiosity knew no bounds. He was never afraid to try something new or do something different, as demonstrated by his notorious courtroom experiments with a voice stress analyzer machine. Oh, how he would have loved the Internet. He was a man of great learning. Congressman Buddy Darden tells the story of how Justice Weltner – accompanying a Congressional delegation on a tour of the Royal Cathedral in Madrid, Spain – delighted in translating aloud the Latin epitaphs of the medieval kings and queens entombed in the cathedral. But he never lost his interest in the ordinary human condition and the pursuit of justice for the common man. As he once said of his father, “Mainly he was interested in the people who were poor and broke and busted and given a bad deal in life.” He was a hero to Southern liberals because of his lonely support for civil rights and his protests against the senseless violence of the Birmingham church bombings.

Three decades after his Congressional service, Charles Weltner was the second recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award. On the Georgia Supreme Court, he was a champion of honest and open government for which the Georgia First Amendment Foundation honors his memory annually. Those who said that he became more conservative after he went on the bench failed to see that he did not change. But his liberality was bestowed upon the bank teller or convenience store clerk – struggling to make a living – and not upon the thug who stuck a gun in her face and demanded money. In court, Charles Weltner was the great equalizer and enforcer of the rule of law. He loved serving on the Superior Court and then the Supreme Court of Georgia, where he was too briefly Chief Justice. It is a compliment to our profession that, until the very end of his life, it provided him with opportunities for service suitable to his restless and demanding intellect.

Near the end, in his last opinion, he wrote “I lay aside my duties with some regret for things that remain undone. More powerful, however, is the satisfaction that comes from the substantive accomplishments of the court, and for its strength and influence as the core of an honorable, competent and independent branch of government.” On August 31, 1992, this gallant and courageous man died. The funeral service of Charles Weltner at the Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta was one of the most moving public ceremonies that I have ever witnessed. There were more than a few moist eyes when, at the end, the organist played Waltzing Matilda – one of his favorite songs – as we left the sanctuary.

Charles Weltner, my dear friend, we still miss you and think of you often. But you live on in all those whose lives you touched.

Footnotes:
1. Clifford M. Kuhn, “An Oral History Interview with Justice Charles L. Weltner,” 3 J. Southern Legal Hist. 181 (1994).
2. Davis v. City of Macon, 262 Ga. 407 (1992)(Weltner, C. J., concurring).

About Thomas W. Thrash, Jr.

Thomas W. Thrash Jr. is the Chief United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.