Justice A.A. Birch dies at age 78 - WSMV News 4

Justice A.A. Birch dies at age 78

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV-AP) -

Justice Adolpho A. Birch Jr., the first African American to serve as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, has died.

Birch, who was chief justice in 1996 and 1997, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004 and took a temporary leave from the bench for treatment. The cause of his death wasn't immediately
released.
  
Birch began his judicial career in 1969 as a General Sessions Court judge in Davidson County. He went on to become a criminal court judge in Nashville and then a judge on the state Court of Criminal Appeals.
  
He was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1993 and was elected the following year. In 1998, he was elected to an eight-year term, which he served until his retirement in August 2006.
  
"As the only judge who ever served at every level of our legal system, Justice Birch had a keen understanding of the law, the judiciary and the people he served," Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark said in a statement.

"That perspective served him well on the Supreme Court, especially in his role as chief justice. For his entire judicial career he continued to blaze trails to insure justice and access to the
courts for all persons."
  
He was not the first black justice on the high court. George Brown of Memphis was appointed to the court by then-Gov. Lamar Alexander in 1980 to fill a vacancy created by the death of Justice Joe Henry but was defeated for election later that year when justices were popularly elected.
  
In dissenting opinions, Birch wrote in several death penalty appeals about "grave concerns" over the method the court uses to compare capital cases.
  
He repeatedly declined to uphold executions, arguing that Tennessee lacks an adequate "proportionality review" of whether death sentences are handed down fairly and consistently.
  
Birch was born in Washington, D.C., where he grew up. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and then received his bachelor's and law degree from Howard University in Washington.
  
He practiced law in Nashville from 1958 to 1966, and was an assistant public defender from 1963 to 1966.
  
Birch was appointed to the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1987, and was elected to that court in 1988 and re-elected in 1990.
  
He was on the teaching faculty at the Nashville School of Law, was a former associate professor of legal medicine at Meharry Medical College in Nashville and had lectured on law at Fisk and
Tennessee State universities.
  
Birch played a key role in adopting a Supreme Court rule that allowed cameras in state courtrooms, giving media and the public greater access to the judicial system.
  
"I think our system needs to be transparent," Birch said when he retired. "People need to see it."

Memorial Service

Birch will lie in repose from 2 to 5 p.m. Tuesday at the historic Metro Courthouse in downtown Nashville. A memorial service will follow at 6 p.m. at War Memorial Auditorium.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Justice A.A. Birch Jr. Legal Education Fund, P.O. Box 331487, Nashville, 37203.

Gov. Bill Haslam released the following statement Friday:

"Justice Birch was a pioneer. He inspired generations of Tennesseans and enjoyed a distinguished career. He made our state a better place, and I am grateful for his work for all of us.  Crissy's and my thoughts and prayers are with his family and those across the state mourning his loss."

Mayor Karl Dean:

"Justice Birch is a man that I admired and respected personally and professionally. I met him 27 years ago when I was an assistant public defender appearing in his courtroom. As he blazed new trails in the legal profession, over time I became fortunate enough to call him a friend and a valued mentor.

As the only Tennessee judge to ever serve at each level of our local and state judiciary, Justice Birch was a champion for the law, equality, the poor and the underserved. He did not know a stranger. Many considered him a friend, and many more would tell you just how much Justice Birch's life made a difference in their own.

My friend lived believing that every person mattered and that every person could be someone that mattered in the life of another. Justice Birch would often remark in reflecting on the accomplishments of his career that he was ‘immeasurably blessed.' I can say without hesitation that it was the people of this city and state that were immeasurably blessed by his life and legacy.

Justice Birch was the most honorable man I have ever met. He was a faithful servant in the truest sense. Anne and I will deeply miss him. His children and grandchildren are in our thoughts and prayers, and our city is eternally grateful to them for sharing the life of such a significant man."

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander:

"Justice Birch was a pioneer in the legal profession and a consummate gentleman. The Nashville community will greatly miss him."

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper:
 
"He was a great man, a legend in Nashville. I saw him at Bobbie's Dairy Dip not too long ago. He said it wasn't in his diet, but he was going to enjoy it."

Metro Councilman Walter Hunt:

"He has been a true pathfinder. He has opened doors for so many people and helped so many people. This community is going to miss a great warrior."

State Sen. Thelma Harper:

"Justice Birch was a close friend of mine, a mentor to many, and a pillar of leadership for Nashville and the state of Tennessee," Harper said. "His presence will most certainly be missed, but Justice Birch's legacy will continue through the countless people who looked up to him as an example of fairness and honor. We would all do well to strive toward the standard he set in his life and his service."

Tennessee Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark:

"We are extremely saddened to learn of the passing of former Chief Justice Adolpho A. Birch, Jr. Our judicial family has lost a great leader, champion of justice, and dear friend. A true pioneer in many arenas, Justice Birch has left an indelible mark on the Tennessee judiciary and the entire legal system.

As the only judge who ever served at every level of our legal system, Justice Birch had a keen understanding of the law, the judiciary and the people he served. That perspective served him well on the Supreme Court, especially in his role as chief justice. For his entire judicial career he continued to blaze trails to insure justice and access to the courts for all persons.

I was very privileged to serve with Justice Birch on the Court during the last year of his tenure and to have my office around the corner from his. I often sought his advice and counsel. He never hesitated to stop what he was doing and answer my questions, and I benefited greatly from his wisdom and patience. I was proud to call him my colleague and my friend.

Justice Birch served the state of Tennessee with extraordinary dignity and integrity and we will miss him dearly."

The Davidson County Legislative Delegation:

"We, like all Tennesseans, are mourning the loss of a true Tennessee Statesman, Justice Adolpho A. Birch. He was a pioneer, not only as the first African American Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, but also for his tireless pursuit of justice, equality and transparency within the system. The Davidson County Delegation extends our deepest sympathy to the family of Justice Birch. His life serves as an honorable example for all Tennesseans and he will be missed."

Tennessee Bar Association President and Memphis lawyer Danny Van Horn:

"Tennessee has lost a true giant with the passing of Justice A. A. Birch Jr. He stood astride the era of legal segregation, the bridge of civil rights action and the coming of a more just society. In addition to his contributions as an outstanding jurist, our colleague Justice Birch gave generously of his time and talents to mentor new lawyers and advise the legal community in ways to better the profession, the justice system and the community."

Copyright 2011 WSMV. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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