Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Henry Land was a man passionate about his beliefs and discreet about his political influence.
In the quarter-century he spent on the bench in the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit, he was regarded not only as a stern jurist who was tough on crime and on attorneys, but as a behind-the-scenes kingpin who in the political realm could pull strings and yank chains, working through a shadowy association that for meeting in a fish restaurant was known as “The Fish House Gang.”
Land died Wednesday at age 93, after being admitted to hospice care. His passing marked the end of a generation in the Land family. He was the youngest of 10 children and was the last of them to die.
His funeral will be 3 p.m. Monday at Striffler-Hamby Mortuary’s Macon Road chapel, followed by a committal service in Park- hill Cemetery.
First elected to Superior Court in 1964 and retiring in 1988, Land often was embroiled in controversy. His early stances on issues such as racial segregation became outdated, but he later re-evaluated those beliefs and changed with the times.
He never admitted any power beyond what he gained from his robe and gavel.
“The only power you have here is in the courtroom, and that involves very few people,” he told a reporter after his retirement. “It’s a prestigious position, but the word ‘power’ is questionable. I never had any power. I just do my job in there.”
Land also said then that his reputation for stringency was overstated.
“I think I’ve called it like I saw it,” he said. “What I’m proudest of is my reputation for fairness.”
Butting heads in courtroom
He gained a grudging respect from attorneys with whom he butted heads in court.
Gary Parker, once one of Columbus’ most outspoken African-American attorneys and later a state senator, recalled visiting Land’s office when the judge was 73. Hearing Parker talking to his secretary, Land invited the lawyer back for a chat.
“He was sitting there, and he was looking out the window, and he turned to me. He said, ‘Gary, any 73-year-old white person who tells you they were not raised to be a segregationist is telling you a damn lie,” he said. “But the times change and people change, and I’m glad that I have changed.’”
Parker also remembered once discussing plea bargains with Land and with prosecutors who kept pointing out which defendants were black males. Parker was the only black person in the room.
Parker told the judge he might as well leave, if being a black male mattered so much.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I want to know what that has to do with it,’” Parker recalled. “Then he said, ‘That’s why I like Gary. He reminds me of when I was a young man -- I stood up.’ He was probably the most supportive person as far as giving guidance to me, as a young lawyer, than anybody else in the local legal community.”
One of the first female prosecutors to practice before Land gave a similar assessment.
“I was the first female assistant district attorney in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit,” Tasca Hagler wrote in an email upon hearing of Land’s demise. “As the young neophyte prosecutor in the DA’s office, I alone was assigned for one year to prosecute all felony cases assigned to Judge Land. When I first appeared in his courtroom, he did everything he possibly could do to intimidate me and move me to tears. While my tears were shed in the privacy of my office, I stood firm and resolute in his courtroom.”
She later decided Land was testing and training her.
“What it took me several months to realize was that this tough jurist was honing my litigation skills in his fatherly attempt to make me an effective prosecutor,” Hagler said. “We soon developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. If Judge Land liked you, he would walk through fire for you. If he did not like you, heaven help you.”
Patriarch of influential family
Land was born in Columbus on June 1, 1918, the son of Aaron Brewster and Mattie Miller Land. He graduated from Columbus High School in 1935, and in four years finished a five-year University of Georgia law degree program.
He was in private practice when drafted into the Army in 1941, rising to the rank of major and being honorably discharged after World War II. When he came home, he resumed working in law -- and in politics.
He ran for the Georgia House in 1946 and nearly unseated a veteran legislator. Two years later, he ran unopposed for the Georgia Senate and served from 1949 to 1950, during which he became a fierce critic of then-Gov. Herman Talmadge.
Land later was considered to fill a vacancy as district attorney, but his old foe Talmadge instead chose Russell Davison, to whom Land lost a 1952 election for the post. After Davison committed suicide, another governor, Marvin Griffin, appointed Land the chief prosecutor here in 1955.
Like Land, Griffin was an ardent segregationist. He named Land to one of 60 at-large positions on the Georgia Democratic Executive Committee, and Land was among 200 political leaders involved in organizing the States Rights Council of Georgia Inc., which was committed to preserving racial segregation.
Of Land’s later change of heart, Parker said, “I just think that Judge Land evolved as a person, as far as he had beliefs and I think he was very passionate about those beliefs, but he evolved and saw a change in the world, and he embraced that change, and I respect him for that.”
As a prosecutor and judge, Land established a reputation for toughness and for candor. Though later he would claim he lobbied only as a private citizen, he had no reservations about letting elected officials know his political positions.
“He’s never been bashful about his wishes and wants, but I never did notice that he left his judge’s robes at home,” the late Georgia Sen. Floyd Hudgins said of Land in 1989.
Land particularly disliked legislation reducing criminal penalties, such as the General Assembly’s changing to a misdemeanor the offense of possessing small amounts of marijuana. If harsh drug laws crowded jails, then build more jails, he said: “As far as I’m concerned, this is a war. There’s nothing wrong in a war with concentration camps.”
Land was regarded not only as a powerful figure in his own right, but also as the patriarch of an influential family.
Land’s brother Luther’s son Ted served as a city councilor and Georgia Senator. Land’s brother Ellis’ son Jack Land also served as a longtime city councilor. Jack Land’s son Clay became a city councilor and now serves as a U.S. District Court judge. Clay Land’s brother Ben is an attorney.
Land is survived by his wife, Mary, and four children, John H. Land III, Martha Christensen, Jeffrey Land and Jere Land. A daughter, Karen Parcensas, preceded him in death.
The family will accept flowers, or donations may go to Columbus Hospice, 7020 Moon Road, Columbus, GA 31909.