Friday, December 31, 2004

On the retirement of a distinguished Roanoke general district court judge

The Roanoke paper has this interesting profile of Judge George W. Harris, Jr., retiring after nearly 20 years as judge of the General District Court.

The article provides, in part:

"Harris graduated from all-black Dunbar Senior High School in Lynchburg in 1955 and was one of the first blacks to attend the University of Virginia.

Social pressures at UVa during the late 1950s forced him to transfer out after two years.

At Virginia Union University in Richmond in 1960, he was arrested for trespassing during a civil rights sit-in, but his conviction was later overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court.

With a bachelor's degree in business administration, Harris set out to find a job, but the only job he was offered was as an assembly line worker at General Electric. Instead, he decided to go to law school.

Three years later, in 1967, Harris had obtained his law degree and passed the bar exam on the first try. He set up a general practice in Roanoke, taking over the practice of a black lawyer who had died.

. . .

After gaining a reputation as a tireless adversary of the school board and school administration, Harris was named to the Roanoke School Board in 1980.

"I think if a devil's advocate is needed, yes, I'll be one," he said in a 1980 interview with The Roanoke Times. "If I feel that basically the board is doing the best it can, I guess you could classify me an establishment man."

But few could really call Harris an "establishment man." He remained a watchdog of the school administration and, when it was time to hire a new superintendent, was one of a minority on the board who voted against hiring Frank Tota.

When Harris was considered for a judgeship, he received the honor of being endorsed by both the Roanoke and the Salem-Roanoke County bar associations, something that does not happen with regularity. Even Tota agreed that a judgeship would suit Harris."

The article goes on to describe an occasion when Judge Harris put a then-young assistant prosecutor in jail:

"One day in May 1988, [Ray] Ferris, then a prosecutor, showed up for court a half-hour late. Harris responded by reducing the defendant's felony charge to a misdemeanor.

"Judge, you don't have the authority to do that," Ferris said. "Either dismiss the case or certify it."

Ferris was warned, then found in contempt and thrown in jail. Sixteen years later, he says he learned quite a lesson from Harris that day."

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