By Patrick Yost
On Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020 a nearly four decade institution will end.
William “Billy” Prior, chief judge, Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit has announced he will not seek another term in office.
Chief Judge Prior, a Morgan County native and a venerated judge within the eight county circuit, said Friday he has decided to end a judicial career that began on July 1, 1981 when he was appointed to the position by then Gov. George Busbee. Chief Judge Prior said he received the appointment, in part, because Morgan County Rep. Roy Lambert, who was Busbee’s floor leader at the time, recommended Prior for the position. Before becoming a judge, Prior worked for nine years as an attorney in the region.
Chief Judge Prior said he was stepping done so he could schedule and complete knee replacement surgery. “I don’t want to be in a situation where I’ve got to scurry around and find someone to cover for me.”
Prior replaced Superior Court Judge George Carpenter. At the time, Judge Carpenter and Superior Court Judge Hugh Thompson were the only judges in the circuit. Currently there are five judges in the circuit which includes Baldwin, Greene, Hancock, Jasper, Jones, Morgan, Putnam and Wilkinson County.
Chief Judge Prior is the longest serving judge in the state.
His announcement that he won’t seek another term has sent shockwaves through the legal community, from law enforcement to prosecutors to defense attorneys all praised Chief Judge Prior’s practiced judicial poise.
“it’s going to leave a void in our circuit,” said Morgan County Sheriff Robert Markley. “Judge Prior is a one-of-a-kind judge that has been a steady hand in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit.”
Chief Judge Prior said he hopes to continue, after he recuperates from the medical procedure, as a senior judge in the circuit.
Madison attorney Martin Fierman said Chief Judge Prior was a consummate, prepared attorney and judge. Fireman said he faced Prior when he was practicing law and noticed that Prior was “well prepared and well disciplined as a trail lawyer.”
“He carried all that into what he became as a judge.”
Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Stephen Bradley said Chief Judge Prior is “one of the true great ones.”
“He’s the consummate gentleman. He has the highest expectations of everybody in the courtroom.”
Chief Judge Prior graduated from Virginia Military Academy and then from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1972. He also served for 31 years in the United States Marine Corps, reaching the rank of colonel.
Prior said the past 38 years has taught him to preside with both humility and pragmatism. “You have to be patient and willing to listen to people,” he said. “They’ve all got a story.”
Fierman and other attorneys in the district said Chief Judge Prior’s influence has shaped the judicial circuit and created a reputation for fairness and honor. “His expectations for how people should behave are very high. He expected lawyers to behave honorably,” he said.
“It was Billy who set the tone and standard for judges in this circuit and he didn’t do it by lecturing anybody,” Fierman said. “They all copied his style.”
Noted defense attorney Guy Notte said Chief Judge Prior is “not impulsive.”
“He makes his decision based on the law and the facts. That’s all you can ask for.”
Madison Police Chief Bill Ashburn, a former Georgia State Patrol trooper, said he has worked with the chief judge for years and marveled at his openness. “He’s been a staple,” Ashburn said. “I would never hesitate to go and speak with him if I needed his judgement.”
Chief Judge Prior said once he learned the craft he became enamored with the law. “Once I became a judge I wanted to stay a judge,” he said. Prior has administered “thousands” of cases from death penalty hearings to divorces and he has lived through a technological shift in the practice of law. Sitting in his Morgan County Courthouse office Chief Judge Prior waves a hand at a wall covered with law books. “You see this books. They are essentially obsolete,” he laughs.
Morgan County Clerk of Court Jody Higdon, who has served with Chief Judge Prior more than 15 years, said “it’s a sad, sad day for the Ocmulgee Circuit.”
“He’s the last of a dying breed,” she said.