Trailblazing judge Jack Ruffin, 75, dies

Mr. Ruffin, who retired from the Court of Appeals at the end of 2008, died Friday at age 75 after collapsing at his home in Atlanta.

Appeals Court Judge Herbert E. Phipps remembered his friend of four decades for his dogged pursuit of equal justice, his feisty debates over cases and his wry, sometimes biting, sense of humor.

"The state of Georgia is a much better place today for the work he did as a lawyer and a judge," Mr. Phipps said. "He had a keen interest in justice for everyone. It's a great loss."

Mr. Ruffin became a lawyer against his mother's wishes. She wanted him to be a schoolteacher, thinking he would be put in harm's way as a black lawyer in the Deep South in the 1960s.

Mr. Ruffin did have some close scrapes. On one occasion, he found himself jailed for contempt in Waycross after a contentious cross-examination of then-Sheriff Robert E. Lee, who told Mr. Ruffin to stop pointing his finger at him. After Mr. Ruffin won an acquittal for a black client who was accused of raping and killing a white woman, a Hart County judge ordered a deputy to escort the lawyer until he was safely across the county line.

Three years into his legal career, Mr. Ruffin shook up Augusta's white establishment by filing suit to desegregate the Richmond County school system. He doggedly pursued the litigation for decades against a defiant school system and hostile judges before finally obtaining a federal court order to integrate the system.

Throughout the contentious litigation, Mr. Ruffin was always ethical and professional -- "a perfect gentleman," U.S. District Judge Anthony Alaimo said in an interview before he died in December.

"You could always rely on his word, and I think his low-key approach served him well," said Mr. Alaimo, who finally got the case and issued rulings in Mr. Ruffin's favor. "He began to prevail slowly and gradually and ultimately he succeeded."

While a private attorney, Mr. Ruffin also filed suit to force integration of the schools in his native Burke County. After a judge issued a desegregation order, Mr. Ruffin threatened his mother, who had remarried, with contempt when she said she did not want to send her children to the white schools.

She finally relented, so Mr. Ruffin did not have to decide whether to follow through with his threat. "I just didn't think I could ask other parents to make that kind of sacrifice and exempt by own," he said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in December 2008.

Mr. Ruffin was the first black member of the Augusta Bar Association, which waited 10 years after he set up practice before extending him an invitation. He was the first black Superior Court judge in Augusta. And, in 2005, he became the first black chief judge of the state Court of Appeals. At the time of his death, Mr. Ruffin held a position teaching a class at Morehouse College.

"I hope I've been a good judge," Mr. Ruffin said during the December 2008 interview with the AJC. "I always knew what kind of judge I didn't want to be. As a lawyer, I appeared before so many I felt were not deserving to wear the robe."

Mr. Ruffin said one moment he would never forget was when his portrait was unveiled in April 2008 at the Burke County Courthouse in his hometown of Waynesboro. "I never could have imagined that day would ever happen," he said, his eyes welling with tears.

There will be a wake for Mr. Ruffin from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Augusta. His funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, also at Tabernacle Baptist Church.

Survivors include his wife, Judith Ruffin; his father, John Ruffin Sr. of Birmingham; a son, Brinkley Ruffin of Indianapolis; and two grandsons.

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