If the measure of a man’s worth is in the number of tears shed on his behalf, then the Honorable William L. Brown is a man of great merit. Many tears were shed Wednesday, July 1 during the unveiling of his portrait in the courtroom where he served as Hamilton County Circuit Court judge in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Nearly all of the tears were born of laughter, but they were tears nonetheless.
Brown’s successor, Judge W. Neil Thomas III, led the proceeding. “It’s hard to believe it’s been 18 years, but it has been 18 very short years,” Thomas said as he opened the ceremony. “The memory of you still pervades this courtroom.”
Following the invocation by Dr. William Dudley, pastor of Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church, Judge Thomas asked Brown’s family to stand, including Brown’s wife, Judy. “They are truly the ones behind him, especially Judy,” Judge Thomas said. “I don’t think you would have made it all these years without her.”
“There was no shortage of guidance,” Brown said, fueling the first outburst of laughter by the standing-room only crowd.
Judge Thomas then called on two of Brown’s closest colleagues to offer remarks: attorneys Roger W. Dickson and Phillip C. Lawrence.
Dickson provided the only maudlin moment of the occasion when he recalled the day he and Brown, whose nickname is “Chink,” met 50 years ago at the University of Chattanooga. “He became my friend, and when you have Chink as a friend, buddy, that’s all you need,” he said, pausing to hold back tears. “He’ll get in the ditch with you.”
Dickson then shared a couple of the “Judge Brown stories” he has in his repertoire – stories he said are legendary at Miller & Martin, where both men currently practice.
“Chink and I were going to try a case for Coca-Cola Enterprises in Knoxville. It was a hard case. They were being sued by ... a third-party vendor, and we had an uphill battle ahead of us.
“After the first few days, we thought we were doing okay. Then on the fourth day, Chink is cross-examining a key witness when he knocks over the easel and all of his exhibits fall to the floor.
“He bends over to pick them up, and I walk over to him and whisper in his ear, ‘You’ve got your a-- pointed right at the jury.’ Chink can’t whisper, so he says, ‘Then get your blankety-blank-blank-blank down here and help me.”
After the nearly riotous laughter in the room died down, Dickson continued.
“I don’t know how that played with the jury, but I will say the plaintiff sued for $4 million, and the jury returned a verdict of $5 million.”
After laughing even harder while telling a story about Brown’s ill-fated journey to Bledsoe County to be sworn in as county attorney, Dickson closed with another sentimental remark, saying, “If you have contact with Chink during the day, that day is made richer and more enjoyable. It’s a better day.”
Judge Thomas then called Lawrence to the podium, saying, “How are you going to follow that?”
“Where’s the door?” Lawrence said.
Instead of leaving, Lawrence bravely took the podium. “Watching Harold Brown in a trial was pure entertainment,” he said. “He could say things with impunity that would get anyone else hauled away in chains.”
Regarding Brown’s style on the bench, Lawrence said, “Some might say he was intemperate or injudicious. I prefer to say he was more direct than indirect, and more straightforward than oblique.”
Lawrence then changed focus, and revealed a different side of his friend and colleague.
“He put his full effort into his job, and I don’t just mean in a judicial way. He put his heart and soul into it, too,” he said. “I was here on many occasions when Chink admonished the people in a domestic relations case, and told them about how their hostility and destructive behavior was harmful to everyone around them. He was driven to do that. He couldn’t give a sterile ruling.”
Lawrence said the energy and emotion Brown expended on the bench left him feeling exhausted and ineffective, and led to him leaving the bench in 1997 to join Dickson at Miller & Martin, where he developed a successful mediation practice.
“Some might say this tribute comes late, but think it’s a fitting time,” Lawrence said. “You’ve distinguished yourself as a consummate trial lawyer, you admirably fulfilled your duties as a judge, and you are now distinguishing yourself as a mediator. That’s the perfect trifecta for the legal profession.”
Before giving Brown the opportunity to speak, Judge Thomas offered his predecessor one more compliment, saying, “I’ve got size 14 shoes, but your shoes are even bigger, figuratively. I’ve tried for 18 years to fill them, but I haven’t done it yet.”
Following the unveiling of the portrait, a regal work sponsored by over 70 individuals and law firms, Brown stood to speak. Looking around the room, he began by saying, “If you have family, friends, and health, then you’re blessed. And I have all three.”
Regarding his time on the bench, Brown said, “It was a privilege to serve and to work with the lawyers, and the elected officials, and the people of this community. I’m often asked if I miss being a judge, and my response most of the time is I miss the people.”
Brown then shared a few stories of his own, all tailored to produce more laughter. He seemed to still relish how the wife in a divorce case involving a couple from Nigeria referred to him as, “My lord,” and he earned the biggest laugh of the ceremony as he related the story of a son who attempted to take out an order of protection against his mother.
“She mistook him for a burglar when he entered their home through the bathroom window drunk after going to a costume party dressed as a Ninja Turtle, and beat him with a mop,” he said. “My kids were grown and gone, so I had to ask what a Ninja Turtle was.”
Becoming serious for a moment, Brown confirmed what Lawrence said regarding his reasons for stepping down as judge in 1997. “I let the divorces run me off the bench,” he said. “I became frustrated with them.”
Brown also recognized his wife of 55 years. “After I’d been sworn in, Judy said, ‘Just be mindful, big boy, of where your jurisdiction ends,’” he said, inspiring a fresh wave of laughter. “And I’ve been ever mindful of that.”
Brown was born May 7, 1940 in Chattanooga to the late Harold E. and Martha Jane Brown. He attended Sunnyside Elementary School, Brainerd Junior High School, and Central High School, graduating from the latter in 1958. Brown then attended Auburn University and the University of Chattanooga (UT), from which he graduated in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree.
Brown and his wife married in 1960. After tying the knot, he worked several full-time jobs while attending UT, including Davenport Hosiery Mill, the City of Chattanooga, Central Motor Express, and Combustion Engineers (now Alstom).
Brown attended Cumberland School of Law at Samford, where he received his juris doctor in 1970. He was admitted to the Tennessee Bar in April of that year and began practicing with his father.
Brown served as judge for the City of Red Bank from 1978-1987, when Gov. Ned McWherter appointed him judge of Hamilton County Circuit Court Division IV. Brown was elected without opposition to a full eight-year term in 1990. He resigned the position in 1997 and become a partner at Miller & Martin, where he continues today in an of counsel position.
While practicing the law, Brown was elected to the Board of Governors of the Chattanooga Bar Association and the Board of Governors of the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association. He is a member of the Chattanooga, Tennessee, and American Bar Associations. In addition, Brown is a Fellow of the Chattanooga and Tennessee Bars.
While on the bench, Brown was appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court to a committee formed to study alternative dispute resolution. Brown has conducted over 1,175 mediations and arbitrations.
Brown has served as deacon, elder, and trustee at Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church. Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed him to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission, where he served as chairman for two years. He is currently a member of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation and is a past member of the Board of Directors of the Walter E. Boehm Birth Defects Foundation.
Brown and his wife have two children: Rev. Doug Brown and Holly Novkov. They also have five grandchildren: Mary Holland Novkov, Caroline Novkov, Hannah Brown, Audrey Brown, and Jonathan Brown.
Brown’s son, the senior pastor of Greenwood Village Community Church in Denver, Colo., closed the ceremony by offering a few final words about his dad.
“It’s an honor to be the son of my father. He’s a good, honorable, and righteous man. I remember watching my dad during a volatile, controversial custody case. I saw him do what he thought was right, irrespective of public opinion, and irrespective of the venomous remarks in the paper. That is the calling of a judge – to do what is right and dispense justice even when it goes against public sentiment.
“Thank you for honoring him today.”
To see more photos, pick up a copy of the Hamilton County Herald.