ATHENS THRU THE YEARS
Over The Years At The Courthouse
By Anne Adams
The Henderson County Courthouse has down through the years been the scene of both legal and political processes that affected numerous individuals. And in a 2012 County history, two of these persons reminisced about their time in the courtroom.
One of these was the late U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice, who during his time on the Federal bench brought national praise and also criticism with his decisions. Born in Athens, as the son of a prominent Henderson County attorney, Judge Justice described his early exposure to the courtroom.
"I spent a lot of my time as a youth on the third floor of the Courthouse because the Henderson County Library was situated there," he wrote. This was the 1930s and the District Court location was also on the third floor and because of its close proximity, those in the library could often hear the voices of the attorneys. This was actually not hard to do since lawyers at the time often shouted their final arguments to the jury.
Also, since this was before the Courthouse was air-conditioned, the courtrooms were cooled by circulating fans and all the windows of the courtroom were kept open. However, according to Judge Justice, that meant that when a truck passed to the south of the Courthouse, then all proceedings halted since no one could hear anything until the truck was gone.
At that time since so many lawyers chewed tobacco or dipped snuff, spittoons were commonly placed around. And in warm weather, lawyers or even judges would often put aside their robes and even their suit coats and conduct cases in their shirt sleeves. Court proceedings were informal with lawyers not required to stand to speak, and everyone including the judge would smoke.
In fact, one attorney named Sant Miller used this practice to try to affect the jury. When the opposing attorney was questioning a witness, Miller was known to smoke a cigar but not tap off the growing ash tube in an ashtray. The ash got longer and longer and it was his belief that the witness or jury would be so intent on wondering if the ash would fall that they were distracted from the remarks of the opposing lawyer.
Also, rumor had it that Mr. Miller had pushed an unbent extended paperclip down some of his cigars to keep the ash tube from falling,
In the same county history, Judge Jack Hardee added his memories from the 1950s and described one occasion when a divorce case was settled. In this particular case, Judge Hardee awarded custody of the children to the wife and granted the family home to the husband. However, that evening the woman and her children showed up on his doorstep. “She had no place to go since I kicked her and her children out of their home so they came to spend the night with me and my wife.” Judge Hardee wrote. In the end, he made arrangements for the family to stay with relatives.
Courthouse routine and the duties of employees could probably be considered rather routine but there was at least one exception. This occurred in December 1940, when as described in an Athens Weekly Review headline, “Courthouse Workers Serve as Jurors in Lunacy Case Trial.” According to the article, “Six deputies and workers in the office of County Tax Collector Ben Dave Dickerson composed the six-man jury for the trial of a 36-year-old Walnut Creek woman on a lunacy charge here last Friday afternoon.” The office personnel was “rounded-up” to form a jury when the usual jurors in the case left at 5 p.m. The woman in the case was later moved to a state hospital at the request of relatives.