Alabama State Bar
User ID   Password  
James E. Horton (1878 – 1973)
James E. Horton (1878 – 1973)
James Edwin Horton was born somewhere in Tennessee, no one is quite sure exactly where, in 1878.  His father had served in the Confederate Army and his mother was a niece of former President Andrew Jackson.  The family later moved to Athens, Alabama.  The young Horton initially enrolled at Vanderbilt Medical School but changed to law school, graduating from the Cumberland School of Law in Lebanon, Tennessee in 1899.  Before entering private practice he clerked for his father who had become a Probate Judge.

Horton served in the Alabama House and the Alabama Senate.  Eventually he became a Chancery Court Judge and in 1922 a Circuit Court Judge in Decatur.  In 1933, having served 11 years as a Circuit Judge, he was assigned the case of Haywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro Boys.  This case had been transferred to his Decatur court.

The trial of Haywood Patterson was contentious and brought with it international media coverage.  Patterson was eventually found guilty of rape by a jury.  However, on June 22, 1933, Judge Horton ruled on a defense motion and set aside Patterson’s guilty verdict.  Judge Horton granted the motion stating that the jury’s verdict was not supported by substantial evidence and he ordered a new trial.  He was removed as the trial judge for the re-trial.

In May 1934, Judge Horton stood for election for his third term as a Circuit Judge.  He had two opponents and he finished second in the primary resulting in a run-off election.  In the run-off he was defeated and he retired from politics.  The remaining years of his life were spent in private practice, farming, and raising cattle.

No one doubted that Judge Horton lost his re-election because of his ruling in the Patterson case.  Cumberland Law School Dean, John Carroll, has written that the order of Judge Horton in setting aside the jury verdict was one of the most courageous judicial acts in all of American law.  Even though the Judge knew that many citizens would be outraged, that simply did not matter.  The rule of law was more important.

In later years Judge Horton quoted a Latin saying which was often repeated in the Horton family: “Fiat justicia ruat coelum”  which is translated as “Let justice be done though the heavens may fall”.

Judge James Edwin Horton died in 1973.  He was a role model for judicial fearlessness.  The lawyers of Alabama now recognize him as a member of the Alabama Lawyers Hall of Fame.   

« Previous | Home | Next »