There has never been a Douglas Judicial Circuit without Judge Robert J. James.
In the early 1980s, when fast-growing Douglas County was carved out of the Tallapoosa circuit that also included Paulding, Polk and Haralson counties, James ran to become one of the first judges serving the new division.
He won, and has been sitting on the bench continuously since January 1983. Now his 34-year run on as a superior court judge is set to end as he prepares to step down at the end of this month. The state bar held a retirement celebration for James at Sam and Rosco’s on Dec. 8, marking the end, save for a final few weeks of service.
James has a few hobbies he plans to pursue in retirement such as woodworking, travel and genealogy. He’s a self-described history buff as well, and for good reason.
It could be said that James came with the county. His family has been in the area since 1829, which is longer, in fact, than the area has been known as Douglas County. It was part of Campbell County until becoming its own entity during Reconstruction in 1870.
James came around in 1940. A lifelong member of Douglasville First United Methodist Church, he graduated from Douglas County High School in 1958, tacked on a forestry degree from Auburn University and finally went on to earn a degree in law from the now-defunct Woodrow Wilson College of Law in 1966. His 50-year career began on the steps of the old courthouse that December when he was sworn in as a practicing lawyer.
The trajectory of James’ life continued in a steady upward direction from there. After a single year working at a law firm, he struck up his own business in January 1968. By the early 1970s he was the Douglasville city attorney. By the mid-’70s was also the attorney for Douglas County’s hospital authority, and later added a part-time juvenile court judge role to his workload.
James can and will tell you any number of interesting stories from this period. There was the time the hospital almost closed down, and the time the old sewer system across from DCHS was so ineffective it was leaking directly into a nearby creek and had to be replaced.
“The sewer treatment plant was going to be placed where Arbor Place Mall is now,” said James. “It would have been just south of the expressway where the creek flows through the golf course. They changed their minds and it’s now located in Chapel Hills Golf Club. That allowed for the development of Arbor Station, which allowed Kmart to come in and for additional growth.”
He remembers 64-year-old Douglas County Sheriff Phil Miller as a teenager, and remembers when Miller first joined the Douglasville Police Department in 1971. The old courthouse to him isn’t the midcentury modern museum in downtown Douglasville, but its predecessor, which burned down in the 1950s.
“I witnessed the courthouse burning,” James said. “We lived in town on Price Avenue. We heard the police cars going up and down the streets and you could see something was ablaze. It was a cold January night with a strong north wind. That fire was very hot, but the wind was blowing so strong we stood across the street on the east side. There was a Joiner’s Market, we sat in that market to stay warm and watch the fire. It was blowing flames down Bowden Street and all. That wind was so cold that when they were putting water on the north side of the building to protect the vaults, the water froze.”
Legendary Douglas County Sheriff Earl Lee once tried to convince James to become an assistant district attorney, but between his private practice and positions with the city and hospital authority, the move didn’t make much sense.
Becoming a judge, however, did, and in 1982 it was time to pursue that goal.
Judges rarely face opposition in re-election. James, for example, has seen an opponent only once in his nine election cycles. Naturally, it was his first, where he won a contest against John Coney, who was a friend of James and his mother’s lawyer.
The other initial Douglas circuit judge was Robert J. Noland, who served until losing a re-election bid to Superior Court Judge David Emerson in 1990.
Now 76, James has been presiding over cases ever since as Douglas County grew and grew, adding a new courthouse and a giant shopping mall along the way. He’s presided over a large number of cases during his tenure, though he admits they begin to blend together after a while.
“After so long you don’t have that many big ones,” he said. “I had so many that were of import, it’s hard to pick.”
Fellow Douglas Superior Court Judge Beau McClain has worked with James for nearly 30 years. He said the courthouse will not be the same without him.
“If there is any worth in me as a judge, part of it comes from Chief Judge Robert J. James,” McClain said. “I learned something every time I walked into his courtroom as a lawyer and even more so when we became colleagues and friends. He has one of the best judicial temperaments I have ever seen, always calm and reassuring, never losing his temper despite the emotions that run rampant in a courtroom. I have worked with him every day for the past 29 years and we’re going to miss him inside and outside the courthouse.”
There have been only three district attorneys to serve during that span. The first was Frank Winn, followed by David McDade, who took over when Wynn sought a judgeship himself in 1990. McDade relinquished the position in 2014 as part of a non-prosecution agreement with Georgia Attorney General's Office and was followed by current District Attorney Brian Fortner.
“Judge Robert James is a true gentleman judge,” Fortner said. “From the very first day that I walked into his courtroom as a brand new attorney, he treated me with respect. The way he conducted the people’s business was a true inspiration for me as a young man. He made me want to learn more and do better. That never changed during the entire course of my career. Judge James oversaw some of the biggest trials in the history of Douglas County. During many of those legal showdowns, he was the one constant. He was the one who brought a calm but firm voice of reason to the proceedings. Lawyer jokes are plentiful and often deserved, but Judge James brought honor and dignity to this profession. He is a pillar of this community and his absence will be felt by many.”
Older judges had always told Judge James that you simply know when it’s time to retire. For him, that time didn’t come until his mid 70s. Even now, he won’t completely be stepping away. James hopes to stay on as a senior judge, filling in when a full-time judge can’t preside over a case for legal or personal reasons.
“There is no set leave and no annual leave for this position,” James said. “If you have to be out and things need to be done you bring in the senior judges.”
And he definitely won’t be leaving Douglas County.”
“To give you a background, the James family came here in 1829,” James said. “In my office I have a little desk that was built by my great-great-grandfather John James. He was a justice of the superior court of Campbell County [which the area was part of at the time]. We’ve been around this area for a spell, you could say. I believe I’ll be staying here.”
The next step for the circuit is to find a replacement. James’ retirement has created an opening in the Douglas Judicial Circuit as he wasn’t up for re-election until 2018.
The names that have been submitted to replace James so far are McDade, Ryan Leonard, Susan Camp, Robert Kunz, Eddie Barker, Sonya Cachere-Compton, Cynthia Adams, Elizabeth Dalia Racine, Peggy Walker, Shawanda Brown, Corey Martin, Chimere Chisolm-Trimble, Nicole Jones and Vincent Faucette.
Candidates will be interviewed Dec. 12 at the State Bar of Georgia in Marietta, and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal will select the winning candidate, although he is not required to choose from the names on the list so long as the person is legally qualified.
Though selected by the governor, the winning candidate will then have to seek re-election during the 2018 elections.
Like anyone preparing for a new phase in their life, James doesn’t exactly know what to expect. But he thinks it will likely be the culmination of a process he began when he first became a judge more than three decades ago.
“I think it’ll be similar to coming on the bench,” James said. “Before, I knew everything that was going on. I was really involved. When I came on the bench it was like you got isolated, but you had a new environment. You were involved in things that were brought to the court and seeing things that you wouldn’t see otherwise. You were involved and could make decisions and guide things.
“Being a judge is a form of isolation. People don’t realize it, but you don’t have the interactions and connections that you had. ... When you retire, it’ll be another phase of this. I’ll find out about things, but not as quickly as before. I see it as a progression.”