Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 13, 2017

Thomas retires, opens next chapter

Judge Thomas greets well-wishers at a reception hosted by the Chattanooga Bar Association. - Photograph by David Laprad

W. Neil Thomas III has stepped down from the bench but not away from practicing law.

Thomas wrapped up two decades as a Hamilton County Circuit Court judge on Thursday, Oct. 5 – his 20th anniversary in the position. During a reception hosted by the Chattanooga Bar Association that evening at Baylor School, the former justice also announced his re-entry into the practice of law.

Thomas has since launched a complex business law and mediation practice at One Park Place on Lee Highway. His partners include his son, Michael, and former hospital executive Tom Winston, who recently graduated from law school at the age of 73.

“We might have been on opposite sides of the bench, but now we’re on the same side of the bench,” Thomas told the attorneys who’d gathered at Baylor’s Guerry Hall to wish him well. Many friends, family members and other local judges also attended the function.

Thomas is moving into the same space he moved out of when he left the law firm of Schumaker & Thompson in 1997 to become a judge. “As Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again,” Thomas noted.

During the reception, CBA President Bill Colvin offered a few words about Thomas, his friend and former partner at Schumaker & Thompson.

As Colvin stood before the gathering, he held two thick notebooks he said contained the lists of Thomas’ contributions to his profession, community and alma mater. But instead of reading the contents, Colvin set the heavy tomes down and hit a few highlights.

“He was valedictorian of his class at Baylor, which is a pretty big deal, even for a McCallie guy like me,” Colvin said.

Thomas then attended the University of North Carolina on a Morehead Scholarship (now a Morehead-Cain Scholarship) – an honor given to no more than two students from any one school each year. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

His next stop was the University of Michigan Law School, which Colvin said is one of the best law schools in the country.

Thomas began his legal career at the New York City firm of Case & White, where he worked on the landmark Texas Gulf Sulphur security insider trading case (which Colvin studied in law school).

Thomas returned to Chattanooga in 1976 and joined the firm of Thomas, Bishop, Leitner, Mann & Milburn (now Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan). Various firm splits and mergers brought Thomas to Schumaker & Thompson in the late 1980s.

In 1997, then-Gov. Don Sundquist appointed Thomas to fill the seat vacated by Judge William L. Brown.

While a judge, Thomas served his profession with distinction, Colvin said. In addition to establishing the Litigation Section of the Tennessee Bar Association, he’s a Fellow of the American, Tennessee and Chattanooga Bar Foundations and a past president of the Brock-Cooper American Inns of Court.

Thomas’ community involvement is just as distinguished, Colvin said, and includes previous service as the president of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Chattanooga Rotary Club, Tennessee Safety Council, Junior Achievement and Friends of both the Chickamauga National Military and Moccasin Bend Parks.

“Judge Thomas has served the community in so many ways, the notebooks wouldn’t do them justice,” Colvin said.

Colvin also mentioned Thomas’ courage in facing “a personal challenge in 2014,” when the now-former judge took a leave of absence as he was treated for alcohol abuse.

“With the love and support of his family, Judge Thomas confronted this challenge and continues to defeat it,” Colvin said. “We should all take inspiration from that courage because this profession creates challenges of one sort or another for all of us, and we’d be well-served to follow his example.”

Before announcing his new law firm, Thomas complimented the quality of Chattanooga’s bar. “This bar is special to me. When I was working with the Litigation Section of the American Bar Association, we had a chair from Covington & Burling, a large firm out of Washington, D.C. I said to him, ‘You take your two best from Covington, I’ll take my two best from Chattanooga, and my two will whip your two in front of a jury any day.’

“I believe that. We’re blessed with the bar we have. It’s an amazing group of people.”

Thomas, who presided over more than 200 jury trials during his judicial career, also praised the local bar for its civility. “This bar is very professional. I watched all of you for 20 years, and I never used my gavel. That’s a tribute to you. Keep doing a great job,” he said.

Thomas said his son, Michael, began campaigning two years ago to get him off the bench and into private practice. “But he didn’t come to me, he went to his mother,” Thomas said, sparking laughter among his guests. Thomas and his wife, Anne, are the parents of four sons: Neil, David, Michael and Greg.

Thomas’ exit from the bench follows his re-election to a third eight-year term in 2014 and leaves a vacancy in Tennessee’s Eleventh Circuit Court.

The Trial Court Vacancy Commission in September selected three nominees from a pool of nine candidates to replace Thomas: James Exum III, Kyle Hedrick and Jennifer Peck. The commission has forwarded the names to Gov. Bill Haslam for his consideration.

In closing, Colvin said he’s thankful Thomas’ retirement will not take him away from the profession to which he has contributed much. “I know you will continue to serve this profession and community,” he said. “We’re grateful for your service, we’re glad to know you as friend, lawyer and judge, and we hope you enjoy this new stage of your career.”