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The Honorable Brother John "Jack" L. Ruffin, Jr. (Fall 1955) Receives MLK Chapel Portrait

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Obituary

August 11, 2012

By the time John H. "Jack" Ruffin Jr. became the first African-American chief judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals, he had been a pioneering civil rights lawyer who integrated the Augusta school system and a distinguished jurist for two decades.

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."