U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester, 75: Direct but fair

Senior U.S. District Court Judge J. Owen Forrester ran his courtroom by the rule book. He believed in courtesy and demanded professionalism, colleagues said.

“He called them like he saw them in the courtroom,” Atlanta criminal defense attorney Bill Morrison said. “He was famous in criminal cases when you would be arguing a point and he agreed with you or took a position that was more favorable than you were advocating but you just kept on talking about it. He would sometimes stop the proceeding and say, ‘Listen, are you trying to talk me out of this position that I’ve already taken?’ He did that with great humor.”

Julian Owen Forrester, 75, of Atlanta, died of cancer Tuesday, July 1. Funeral services will be held Wednesday July 9 at 10 a.m. at The Church of The Apostles, 3585 Northside Parkway, Atlanta GA 30327 with a reception afterwards. Interment will follow at Arlington Memorial Park in Sandy Springs.

Forrester had served as the district judge for the northern district of Georgia in Atlanta, since January 4, 1982. He was appointed to the position by President Ronald Reagan after serving five years as a federal Magistrate judge for the same court.

The judge was not afraid to stand up for what he believed in, no matter who opposed him.

In 1986, a federal law was put in place that penalized crimes involving crack cocaine 100 times more severely than crimes involving cocaine powder.

In 1994, Forrester announced he would be disregarding that law. He argued that scientifically, the law had no basis in fact. He ruled that Congress assumed there was a difference between cocaine and crack that didn’t exist.

It was the first time the law, which resulted in harsher sentences for black defendants 30 times more often than whites, had been challenged on scientific grounds.

“He was a man of principle,” said fellow Senior U.S. District Judge William O’Kelley. “He had high standards and he stood for them and he didn’t step down from the position he took. He was a man of honor. And he expressed his positions and stood by them.

“I’d like to think most of us [judges] aspire to be like that. He certainly was a very fine judge.”

Two years later, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Forrester’s decision and upheld the sentencing law.

In 2010, however, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity of the sentencing from 100:1 to 18:1 and eliminated the mandatory five-year minimum sentence for crack possession.

“It took 18 years, but the Supreme Court finally agreed with him,” Morrison said.

“He enjoyed the finer points of the law,” Morrison said. “A lot of times you could get a better result out of him if you just called up some novel explanation of the law or some novel explanation of what the purpose of the law was because he was more apt to grasp that and see some form of relief there, as opposed to just arguing, for example, the defendant shouldn’t be sentenced to jail for a long period of time because he had a terrible childhood.”

Forrester was also an avid hunter and sportsman, O’Kelley said.

Forrester and O’Kelley would routinely take hunting and fishing trips, sometimes accompanied by Forrester’s two sons.

Stories from those trips regularly made their way back to court.

Once, O'Kelley was showing Morrison photographs from a recent trip O'Kelley and Forrester had taken. Forrester stands prominently in the forefront of one photo, with O'Kelley just behind him. Behind the two judges stands a brown bear. As Morrison puts it, "I mean a huge bear."

Judge Forrester made sure to clarify one thing with Morrison.

“He said, ‘About 30 seconds after that photograph, Judge O’Kelley came roaring past me, running away from the bear,’” Morrison said. “And that was sort of his way of saying that he stood his ground while Judge O’Kelley was fleeing from the apparent danger. As he said it he was chuckling. He had that kind of fun with people.”

Forrester expanded his love of fishing to building fly fishing rods.

“They were very good quality rods and beautiful fishing rods,” O’Kelley said. “To my knowledge he made six, seven, or eight of them at most. Each of his sons had one, and he has one or two, and I was very fortunate that he made three for me.”

He is survived by his wife of 43 years, the former Linda Vaughn Myrick, and by two sons, Rob (Rachel) Forrester, of Atlanta, and Randy (Paisley) Forrester, of Charlotte, and five grandchildren, Charlotte and Ford Forrester of Atlanta, and Azure, Julian, and Clive Forrester of Charlotte.