Joseph Cheeley Jr. was more than a defender of the law. He was also an architect of legal precedent.
One of his most spoken about achievements was his 1980 contribution to divorce law in Georgia, through what is known as the Stokes case. Cheeley successfully argued before the state Supreme Court that even though property was in the name of one spouse, it could be awarded to the other spouse, thus providing an equitable division of property.
“He was doing more than being a good lawyer, he was helping develop the law, and in a way that lawyers take for granted today,” said Dawson Jackson, a senior Superior Court judge in Gwinnett County. “That is a major accomplishment, as I see the law.”
Jackson said when he began his legal career in the district attorney’s office, Cheeley was “one of the premier trial attorneys” he worked with.
“He was an excellent courtroom orator and was well-known for his fine closing arguments, in particular,” he said.
And while Cheeley’s contribution of the Stokes argument was a major accomplishment, his legacy lies elsewhere, said Marion Pope Jr., a former legislator and retired judge.
“I think it says something mighty powerful that three of his sons have taken up the law,” Pope said. “I think it is really a tribute to their father. That’s his greatest legacy.”
Joseph Elbert Cheeley Jr. of Buford died Oct. 11 of complications from pneumonia. He was 84.
A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Saturday at Buford First United Methodist Church. A private family burial will be held at a later date. Flanigan Funeral Home, Buford, is in charge of arrangements.
Cheeley, who was born and reared in Buford, earned his law degree in 1950 from the University of Georgia School of Law. In 1952 the young attorney married the former Selma Medlock, who died in 2012. The couple had five children and spent more than 40 years together before they divorced in 1994.
Cheeley’s legal career in Gwinnett County was interrupted by his service in the Air Force. He continued practicing law during the Korean War, however, as an assistant judge advocate.
Cheeley was more than a respected lawyer in Gwinnett County and Buford; he was also an esteemed judge. He was first appointed to the bench in 1958 at the former Gwinnett County City Court, now State Court. It was a part-time appointment and he continued to practice as an attorney at the same time, said his son Joseph E. Cheeley III, who is also an attorney. The elder Cheeley served as the part-time State Court judge until 1979. After he left the bench, he continued to practice law another 30 years, his son said.
“I don’t know that he ever really retired,” the younger Cheeley said, but the elder Cheeley did stop keeping regular office hours three or four years ago, said the son.
The same thing that made Cheeley a good lawyer made him an excellent judge, Pope said.
Namely, he loved people.
“You’ve got to love people, and you’ve got to have empathy,” Pope said. “Sure you have to bring the law to bear, but at the same time you’ve got to have empathy. And he did.”
In addition to his son and namesake, Cheeley is survived by sons Robert D. Cheeley, John P. Cheeley and James N. Cheeley; daughter, Susan M. Cheeley; sister, Dorothy Cheeley Willis; eight grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
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