Jule Wimberly Felton, 1937-1969
Chief Judge: 1954-1969
Jule Wimberly Felton was born on August 22, 1898, in Montezuma, Macon County, Georgia, of a distinguished family.
Justice Felton had a juristic heritage, which presaged his own long and outstanding judicial career. His father, Jule Felton, as a brilliant lawyer, serving as Solicitor, City Court, Oglethorpe, Georgia, from 1908 to 1919; Solicitor-General, Southwest Circuit, from 1919 to 1929; and Judge, City Court, Oglethorpe, from October 17, 1942 to 1948.
At an early age, Justice Felton learned the meaning of the word "discipline," as he was sent to a military school: Webb School, in Bell Buckle, Tennessee (which he fondly referred to as the "reformatory school"). The rigors of Tennessee winters and such studies as English grammar, Latin and mathematics, provided him with a good background of self-discipline and knowledge not only for his further education, but also for his life as a jurist.
He continued his formal education at Emory College at Oxford, Georgia, for two years. In 1919, he graduated from Mercer University with AB and LLB degrees, being first honor graduate at law. He was a member of Phi Delta Theta social fraternity.
Justice Felton began the practice of law in Montezuma in 1919, and quickly made a name for himself as a dedicated and powerful advocate. He served his hometown as Mayor from January 1, 1926 to January 1933. He was a Mason, a Democrat, and a devoted and devout' member of the Methodist Church. His positive, community-wide influence was broadened when he became the owner and editor of the Montezuma newspaper. When he moved away from his hometown, he left a heritage of a good life and responsible citizenship to that community. His monument there lives in the hearts of its citizens and is reflected in that city's material progress.
His first public service statewide commenced with his appointment by Senator Richard B. Russell as a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission on December 31, 1931. In this capacity, he gave freely of his interest and talents to the public, and labored diligently on behalf of the people of Georgia until July 21, 1933. His inability at that time to see eye-to-eye with Governor Eugene Talmadge temporarily slowed down his political progress, but could not bring it to an end.
Justice Felton's judicial career began in 1937 on the Court of Appeals of Georgia, where his 32-year tenure was the longest in Georgia's history. While he was Chief Judge of that court, from 1954 until 1969, he was an inscriber of the permanent cornerstone of the State Judicial Building, and authored the marble inscription above the bench of the Court of Appeals: "Upon the integrity, wisdom and independence of the judiciary depend the sacred rights of free men." Certainly, the sacred rights of free men were well defended during the judicial tenure of Justice Felton, who showed in his career the integrity, wisdom and independence of which he wrote.
In 1969, he was elevated to the Supreme Court of Georgia to succeed the late Justice William H. Duckworth, in which position he served with distinction until his retirement in 1971. A more significant and lasting monument to Justice Felton than his inscriptions in stone, is the distilled wisdom embodied in the hundreds of opinions, dissents and special concurrences which he authored and in which he participated over his 34-year span of service on Georgia's two highest appellate courts. Among his landmark decisions, which are too numerous to detail here, are Tucker v. Carmichael & Sons, Inc., 208 Ga. 201, in which the Supreme Court upheld his position allowing a child to recover damages for prenatal injuries caused by negligence, and Federal Ins. Co. v. Coram, 95 Ga. App. 622, which extended the concept of employers' premises in workers' compensation cases to include parking lots furnished for employees' use.
He was a brilliant and fearless judge, who labored hard and long and with dedication to bring justice and order to his State. He had an unquenchable drive to attain perfection in the law, to the best of his ability. He held the federal and State Constitutions in the highest regard. He steadfastly maintained that, once the Supreme Court of the United States construed the Constitution or any part of it, the construction became a part of the Constitution and could not be changed by that Court. A staunch advocate of the Doctrine of Stare Decisis, his defenses of the Doctrine of States' Rights were always bolstered by well thought-out arguments based on principles of law rather than sheer emotionalism.
Justice Felton had these outstanding qualities of a great judge: an open mind when searching for an answer, under the law, to the problem presented; a love of the law; and a desire to "get it right." He never just decided cases -he decided the law. In his quest for the truth, he used his law assistants as sounding boards, jokingly warning them that he'd fire them if they ever agreed with him on the law! Indeed, there were many times when there was disagreement on the law, resulting in lively and sometimes heated, but always productive, debate. In the course of one such argument, a court employee told Justice, then Judge, Felton that he was crazy if he thought that was the law! The fact that such a statement could be made to an appellate court judge is a tribute to Justice Felton's character and disposition; he could argue intensely without becoming dogmatic or abusive of others. Once a decision in a case had crystallized, he sometimes gave it to his law assistant to draw up a rough draft for the judge's consideration. If the assistant was having trouble with it, he would be counseled to "sleep on it" awhile, and if the assistant felt that he was "writing uphill" (against his true convictions), the judge would magnanimously take it and write it himself.
Justice Felton was a great believer in the advocate system of law, and was a good friend to lawyers, young and old. He recognized that the law must permit modification, so as to meet the needs of a changing society. His fine sense of justice was always tempered with common sense, mercy and compassion.
Justice Felton's burning desire not only to get the law right, but also to state it correctly, was served well by his writing style, which was extremely clear and to the point, understandable and logical. (His insistence on perfection in English expression, grammar and punctuation frustrated him whenever he heard or observed presidents, public officials of all kinds, family, children, and grandchildren, and others make either oral or written grammatical errors.) He disliked the short, conclusory headnote opinions, preferring instead for each opinion to "stand on its own bottom" -written so that it could be understood without the necessity of reference to another authority.
He recognized the fact that reasonable minds can and do differ on their constructions of the law. One of his favorite sayings was that "in a lawsuit someone must lose, and someone must win, and the judge's only concern is to do what he thinks is morally correct and legally feasible." Although his zeal for truth and perfection sometimes led to disagreements with his colleagues of the bench and bar, whenever he was called "The Great Dissenter," the emphasis was respectfully on "Great."
As with his opinions, his dissents were models of clarity - grammatically and legally -and products of his independent thinking. His often-expressed hope was that future courts would vindicate and adopt his minority positions. He believed in writing his dissents, to make this easier to happen. "You're only entitled to your opinion if you can express it," he'd say. In spite of the tenacity of his convictions, however, he was open-minded enough to vacate his own opinions when shown that they were wrong. So great was his love for truth, perfection, and the law, that he felt almost guilty getting paid for something he enjoyed doing so much! When the porter would bring his paycheck by to him, he frequently reacted with mild surprise, indicating that he'd completely forgotten that he received compensation other than the satisfaction of a job well done.
His 34-year judicial tenure saw many changes in the courts as well as the laws. His first office was in the State Capitol Building in the days when the Court of Appeals was on the third floor of the Capitol, as was the Supreme Court. The judges had spacious offices with wooden, rotating bookshelves, large leather chairs, plush leather sofas, and a multiple number of brass spittoons. The coat closet was extraordinarily large, and during the sessions of the General Assembly, the members would use the judges' offices for congregating and meeting places, hanging their coats and hats in the judges' closets (there was no cloak room for the legislators). In those days (1938-1950), there were no committee rooms or satisfactory meeting rooms of any kind for the legislature. The judicial and legislative branches were indeed close, and there was a constant flow of distinguished visitors in friendly and informal intercourse and discourse in the judges' chambers. There was no air conditioning, cigar smoke permeated everything, and the spittoons were utilized on a daily basis. The judges each had one law assistant who doubled as secretary in the same large room, the relationship was akin to a familial one, and the pace was slow enough for cases to be adequately discussed, debated, studied and savored, and for lengthy summer vacations. Contrasted with that environment was the new State Judicial Building -in its cool, air conditioned, efficient, formal, isolated, and lonely splendor, bringing with it a more hectic time, with higher caseloads, more employees who knew each other less, and less time for savoring the law and the companionship of kindred minds.
But Justice Felton always retained the best of the qualities and characteristics of that earlier environment. He was a true Christian gentleman. He liked to quote the definition of a "gentleman" as one who never unintentionally hurt anyone. Distinguished without having the judicial malady of "black robe-itis," he always retained the common touch, relating equally well to those of high and low estates. He was comfortable and conversant with governors and judges, as well as elevator operators and porters alike, treating everyone as an equal. Those fortunate enough to have been on his staff felt that they worked with him, not for him. As Chief Judge of the Court I of Appeals, he was always fair, courteous and considerate in his dealings with the court personnel. Although a deep thinker and highly sensitive to human suffering, he had a warm, ready wit and appreciation for humor. His few political defeats never embittered him, but rather strengthened his resolve to serve. Victory never degraded the natural humility with which he pursued the constructive goals of his career.
Justice Felton was a deeply spiritual man. His religion was not purely idealistic -he always encouraged improvement in people, and involved himself compassionately with the problems of all whose lives he touched. His reading outside the law mainly related to religious and philosophical books, pamphlets, and other material, with a view toward his insatiable but frustrating desire to achieve his goal of finding a pathway to human perfection for himself and others. An illustration of his quest for improvement is a project he devised, to encourage traffic safety. Expressing the philosophy that everyone wants to be considered a good sport, he had printed up and distributed a number of bumper stickers reading, "Be a Good Sport, Obey Your Traffic Laws." He loved baseball, and derived much pleasure from giving his son, grandchildren, and other youngsters tips on playing, gleaned from his own experience as a pitcher in his youth. Although he was almost religiously present at his office every working day, he made an exception during the World Series, at which time he would invite his law assistant to come over to his home to watch it on color television.
Death claimed Justice Felton, as it must us all, at the age of eighty years, on December 21,1978. He met it not as an enemy, but as an opportunity to better know and love his God, whom he had so long and faithfully served. He has left his mark not only with inscriptions upon stone and upon the law of this State, but also upon the hearts, minds and lives of those he encountered along the way. The bright light of his spirit has not gone out, but has merely been passed on to his descendents and others whom his worthwhile life touched. His many friends can simply chorus, "Good night, sweet prince," and the angels, like mankind, will be richer for having him join them.
Justice Felton loved God, his fellow man, his family, his schools, justice tempered with mercy, baseball, a good story and a good cigar. "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6:8.
243 Georgia Appeals Reports pages XXIX-XLII