Laurens Countians Before the Bench
On September 24, 1789, the Congress of the United States adopted the Judiciary Act. In doing so, Congress created the Supreme Court of the United States, placing upon the court the power to hear cases involving Federal laws and to interpret them. Many will argue that the court has become a Super legislature in of its self. Its decisions are often controversial and many are decided by a margin of a mere one vote. Many more seem to be based on personal ideologies of the justices themselves and not upon established common laws and statutes. A relative few lawyers in our country ever have the opportunity to argue their client's case before the panel of nine justices in the most hallowed, revered and chastised courtroom in America. This is the story of four Laurens Countians, all of whom at one time maintained homes in the Calhoun Street neighborhood.
The first Laurens Countian to appear before the bench of the Supreme Court was the venerable, and somewhat controversial, Thomas B. Felder, Jr. Felder, a former mayor of Dublin, gained a reputation as an outstanding trial lawyer in Atlanta. In the early 1920s, Felder was one of the legal advisers to President Warren Harding. Consequently, Felder became entangled in legal troubles of his own and died under mysterious circumstances, as did many other members of Harding's inner circle.
In 1906, Felder represented Armour Packing Company against the State of North Carolina, which had imposed a tax of $100.00 per county for the maintenance of a meat packing plant. Felder argued before the justices that the tax constituted an interference with interstate commerce and that it was also violative of the 14th amendment. Although the stipulated facts defined what a meat packing plant was and that the activities of Armour did not constitute a meat packing plant, but merely a cold storage facility, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision ruled in favor of the State of North Carolina. Felder's client lost another case to the other Carolina state in 1909 when the court sided with South Carolina's right to regulate and prohibit the sale of alcohol within her borders in the case of Murray v. Wilson Distribution.
Despite his success as an attorney, Felder lost in his third and final appearance before the court in the case of Crichton v. Wingfield, which involved a suit between an aunt and niece over ownership of promissory notes. The case primarily dealt with which court, Mississippi or New York, had jurisdiction over the assets of the dear departed Mr. and Mrs. E.H. Lombard.
Thomas Hardwick, a former congressman, senator and governor of Georgia, lived in Dublin in the mid 1920s. During that time he practiced law and published the Dublin Courier Herald. Hardwick's first appearance in the Supreme Court came in 1914, when he represented the widow and four minor children of one Mr. Dicks of Augusta. It seemed that Dicks petitioned the Federal court for a declaration that he was bankrupt. Sadly, Dicks died three weeks later. His family attempted to have
some of his estate set aside to them for their support, a right unique to Georgia spouses and minor children. The bankruptcy trustee Hull disagreed and argued that Dicks's estate solely belonged to his creditors. The Supreme Court unanimously agrees with Hardwick and allowed the grieving family to have enough money and property to at least help them get back on their feet. In 1918, Hardwick's client, the Georgia Public Service Corporation, a forerunner of the Georgia Power Company, was successful in its argument that the company was entitled to raise utility rates with the authority of the Railroad Commission, despite the fact that it had agree to a fixed five-year rate with the Union Dry Goods Company.
Hardwick became the only Laurens Countian to appear before the court as a resident of Dublin in 1926. Hardwick, representing Fenner, a cotton futures dealer, was unsuccessful in his argument that state laws restricting the sale of commodities were violative of the Interstate Commerce clause of the Constitution. Hardwick, a resident of Augusta in 1934, won the case of Gay v. Ruff in which the railroad prevailed over the father who lost his son in an railroad accident.
Eugene Cook, a native of Wrightsville and a short time resident of Dublin while he served as Solicitor, was elected to serve as the Attorney General of Georgia in 1945. As Attorney General, Cook's first case involving the Supreme Court came in 1946. The case was one of the primary attempts to set aside Georgia's county unit system of voting in state wide elections. The process allowed larger counties six votes to the top vote getters, while most of the smaller counties were allotted two votes. Some Fulton County voters objected, primarily on racial grounds, asserting that their votes were diminished by the allocation of votes. The Supreme Court disagreed and affirmed the process, though it would not be long before the process would be overturned by a more civil rights minded court.
In 1955, Cook and the State of Georgia in Reece v. Georgia were unable to persuade the justices of the court that the state's system of requiring a criminal defendant to challenge the composition of the grand jury before his indictment was valid.
Cook was on the losing side of the case of Georgia vs. the United States in 1958 when the court unanimously affirmed the case in favor of the Federal government without issuing an opinion. A year later, Cook successfully defended the state in the case of N.A.A.C.P. v Williams which involved a technicality on a fine in a criminal matter.
M.H. "Hardeman" Blackshear, Jr., an Assistant Attorney General under his former neighbor Eugene Cook, made his first appearance before the Court in 1950 in the case of South v. Peters another suit involving the county unit system and which was also upheld by the court. Blackshear represented the State of Georgia against the Georgia Railroad and Banking Company in 1952. The bank claimed it was exempt from taxation under its state granted charter.
Blackshear, who authored many briefs during his tenure with the Attorney General's office, made his final appearance before the Supreme Court in 1953 in the case of Avery v. Georgia. Avery was convicted of rape and sentenced to death. Avery's attorneys successfully argued that Avery was denied the right to a fair trial under the Constitution. The court based its decision on the jury selection process where the names of white voters were written on white paper and black voters were
written on yellow paper. Despite the fact that the State claimed that blacks were included in the jury pool, the presiding judge drew sixty potential white jurors and not a single black juror.
Maybe some day, our county will once again be home to an attorney who will zealously argue the rights of his client before a court which was established two hundred and twenty six years ago.