As a criminal defense lawyer, the Hon. William B. Mitchell Carter lost cases at every level of state and federal court, including the U.S. Supreme Court. But as a lawyer and a U.S. magistrate judge, he won the admiration and respect of everyone he met. His time on the bench ended Wednesday with his retirement.
For 16 years, Judge Carter presided over thousands of criminal and civil matters in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee. During his tenure, he developed a reputation for treating people with dignity and respect, for being a perfect gentleman, and for protecting the rights of every litigant in his courtroom.
“Because of my experience and background, I understood what lawyers went through when trying a case,” Judge Carter said last week during a telephone interview with the Hamilton County Herald. “So I tried to not make it difficult for them.”
Judge Carter was also known for making coffee for attorneys, and for wearing a bowtie.
Colleagues and friends spoke about his legal abilities and gentlemanly ways during a retirement reception held July 24 at Camp House.
Emcee Donna Mikel, president of the Chattanooga Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, said Judge Carter will be missed at the federal courthouse. “Many attorneys and parties from all walks of life entered your courtroom, and left it better people,” she said. “You have been the epitome of what a judge should be.”
U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar, one of the two judges who appointed Judge Carter to the bench in 1999, echoed Mikel’s comment in a video recorded in Marquette, Mich., where he hears cases in the state’s western district. “No person was ever more suited to be a judge than Bill Carter,” he said, his face projected on a large screen as hundreds of well-wishers watched. “He has the technical and legal ability, a great sense of humor, sensitivity to the human condition – no doubt nurtured by years of representing defendants in criminal cases - and deep-rooted moral values that stem from his religious beliefs.”
The Hon. Curtis L. Collier, senior U.S. district judge, said serving with Judge Carter has been a pleasure. “He’s been more than a judge. He’s been a friend, a counselor, and a quiet voice of reason on the bench,” he said while providing special remarks. “He’s also brought a common touch to the judiciary. All of the other judges are jealous of him because he is the most loved among us.”
Dave Shelton, a retired DEA agent, presented Judge Carter with several gifts, including a dagger with a pistol-styled handle. He then expressed a sentiment shared by every guest.
“Bill, most of the time, a man won’t say this to another man,” Shelton said.
“Then maybe you shouldn’t,” Judge Carter interrupted, striking a chord of laughter in the room.
“Bill, I love you, and the people in this room love you,” Shelton said, to clamorous applause.
During the presentation, Mikel announced the establishment of the Bill Carter Civility Award, to be given each year at the Federal Bar’s annual meeting to an attorney who demonstrates the civility and professionalism Judge Carter encouraged in his courtroom.
While others looked back with esteem, Judge Carter regarded his time as a judge with humility and awe.
“This has been the most fulfilling job I could imagine having,” he said by telephone. “It’s been magical.”
During his remarks at the reception, Judge Carter said he was unsure about his ability to be an effective judge until after he’d assembled his staff, which included law clerk Katharine Gardner and judicial assistant Jenny Burkhart, both of whom worked for him during his entire tenure on the bench. “I felt like the Straw Man, who lacked a brain,” he said. “I brought Jenny with me, and I found Katharine, and I had my brain. Together, the three of us made a pretty good judge.”
Judge Carter also said working with the lawyers and other judges was a pleasure. “We’re a very convivial group,” he said. “We’ve always had really good relationships.”
During the telephone interview, Judge Carter reminisced about the exciting detours down which his job took him, including a trip to train judges in Armenia and the Republic of Georgia, and an excursion to Bermuda to hear a prisoner transfer case. Judge Carter said his wife of 45 years, Wiki, was pleased to accompany him on both.
Judge Carter came to the legal profession late. After earning an undergraduate degree in economics at the University of North Carolina and a law degree from Vanderbilt University, he took a job with his father’s textile manufacturing business. However, soon after earning a master’s of business administration degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC), he found himself out of work when his father sold the company.
“There I was with an economics degree, a law degree, and a business degree, but no job,” he said by phone. “So I decided to try being a lawyer.”
A lawyer friend, John Tallman, extended a job offer. There was just one problem: he didn’t like speaking in public. “It gave me the willies,” Judge Carter said during his remarks at the reception.
A call from Dr. Arthur Veith, head of the business department at UTC, saved Judge Carter’s legal career. “He asked me to teach business law,” he said by phone. “I needed the money, so I took the job. And I loved it. It made a trial lawyer out of me.”
Judge Carter taught business law and related courses for 17 years at UTC and 18 at Covenant College. He continues to teach at Covenant today.
In time, Judge Carter became a partner in a small litigation firm primarily known as Carter, Mabee and Paris, and practiced in the downtown area until 1999, when Judges Edgar and Collier appointed him U.S. magistrate judge.
“I’ve always appreciated their vote of confidence,” Judge Carter said by phone. “I hope they’ve never regretted it. I know I haven’t.”
Judge Carter plans to spend his retirement at his home on Lookout Mountain – the same home to which he was brought after being born at Erlanger Hospital. Although he hopes to travel, he won’t be retiring completely from judicial work. Rather, he’ll be reviewing social security appeals for the Northern District of New York from his home. He’ll also continue to teach Sunday School at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church. “I was asked to substitute more than 20 years ago, and I haven’t found anyone to take back over yet,” he says.
As Judge Carter stood before the friends, colleagues, and family members gathered at his reception, he quoted a Bible verse he’s referenced many times in the class he teaches at church. It has been, he said, his guiding light, and he encouraged those who were listening to make it theirs as well.
“Proverbs [chapter] three, [verses] five and six, say, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths,’” he said. “He’s done this for me, and He’ll do this for you.”