Let’s face it — judges can be pretty scary folks to We the Unwashed. About the only time we ever see them is when we are called for jury duty or when, heaven forbid, we are a plaintiff or defendant or a witness, wishing we could be anywhere but in the courtroom.
I will let you in on a little secret: Get them out of those black robes and away from their intimidating surroundings, and these folks are fun to be around.
I would know. I have become a part of a regular get-together of a group of judges — superior court, state court, magistrate court — with an occasional attorney, some retired law enforcement personnel and a media person or two thrown in for good measure. How I got to be a part of this august crowd I’m not certain, but it will be several lifetimes before I ask. I’m just proud to be included.
Seated at the head of the table, both literally and figuratively, over the years has been retired Judge Charles L. Carnes of Fulton County State Court. As I have gotten to know the group, it is obvious that Carnes is a special person among this special assemblage. Soft-spoken though he may be, when he speaks, everybody listens. And for good reason.
Charlie Carnes was the youngest of 10 children growing up in Murray County in northwest Georgia during the Great Depression. A certified member of the Greatest Generation, he joined the Navy soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, not yet having graduated from high school and not old enough to be drafted, and served in the South Pacific.
After the war, he returned home to Murray County, finished high school, got married and then was recalled to duty during the Korean War. When that was done, Carnes became the first in his family to attend college and, despite working days and going to school at night, combined a business degree and a law degree.
In 1964, he was encouraged to run for the Georgia Legislature, a post he held until 1980 when he ran unopposed for the state court of Fulton County. Carnes was named chief judge within a year and reelected to his judicial post 16 more times until assuming senior judge status in the late 1990s.
The more I have gotten to know him, the more I have come to admire him. I am not alone. His daughter, Federal Judge Julie Carnes, said, “Most children start their lives with a boundless admiration for their father that is moderated with the passage of time, as that parent’s flaws gradually appear. My arc was the opposite. I always thought well of my father, but it was not until I became a judge that I really started to grasp what a good and special man he is. As for my legal career, I could not have found a better person than my father to demonstrate how an effective leader and a wise person treats his fellow man.”
Judge Frank M. Hull, U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit said, “There is no better trial judge in Georgia or wiser mentor to lawyers and other judges than Judge Charlie Carnes. Because he trained so many new judges, we began to call Fulton County State Court the ‘Charlie Carnes Training School for Judges.’ So many who served under Chief Judge Carnes were later appointed to, or ran for, other judgeships, either on state trial courts or appellate courts or on the federal bench.”
Fulton Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall calls Carnes “the epitome of what a judge should be. I owe my career to him for taking a chance on me when he appointed me magistrate judge.”
Atlanta attorney Louis Levenson, who is also a Fulton County magistrate, told me, “Robert Woodruff, the Coca Cola Company magnate, said that ‘There is no telling how far a person can go if he’s willing to let other people take the credit.’ There is no person I have known, here or gone, more deserving of such comment than Judge Carnes.”
Carnes has been ailing of late. Too often, we don’t let people know how much they are appreciated until they are no longer around to hear it. My intent today is to let this good man know he has made a positive difference in more lives than he can imagine. He has truly earned his place at the head of the table.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at email@example.com or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.