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Cooper: time as judge a ‘humbling experience’

Posted: February 22, 2013 5:25 p.m.
Updated: February 25, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Judge G. Thomas Cooper Jr. will be honored by the community during a portrait unveiling Thursday at 5 p.m. at the Kershaw County Courthouse. Cooper has been a circuit court judge for the 5th Circuit since 2000 and, at age 72, recently entered active retirement.

“It has been a rewarding 13 years and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Cooper said during a recent interview. “I love doing it. I want to keep doing it too, that’s why I’m going to stay on as what they call retired/active.”

The 5th Circuit is composed of Kershaw and Richland counties. Both Cooper and Judge J. Ernest Kinard, who went on retired/active status last year, are resident judges of the 5th Circuit. Kinard, barely a year Cooper’s senior, was the second circuit judge ever elected from Kershaw County; Cooper, the third.

Cooper said he moved to Camden as a young boy. His parents were the late Gafford Thomas Cooper and Mildred Sarah Gilchrist Daily Cooper. His father was an accountant with DuPont and moved his family to Camden in 1949.

Cooper attended Camden public schools and received his bachelor’s degree from Clemson University in 1963. While at Clemson, he served as a high court attorney, part of how he became interested in the law.

“In college, we had a student high court and I got involved with that. I was one of the attorneys of the high court and I guess that started my interest. I can’t relate to any experience before that that got me interested in the law,” Cooper said.

Before becoming a judge, he did a good deal of work in construction-related law. Cooper was an arbitrator and a mediator for approximately 10 years before being elected to the bench. According to his peers as well as subordinates, he was the right man for the job.

Kershaw County Clerk of Court Joyce McDonald had only praise for Cooper when asked about his character,

“Judge Cooper is very humble, observant, and fair,” said McDonald.

Sammy Small Jr., Cooper’s law clerk from 2005 to 2006, said Cooper is “what you want in a judge. Very fair, he gave everyone an opportunity and I really can’t think of a time that he lost his cool on the bench and we did everything from medical malpractice cases on the civil side to death penalty cases on the criminal side -- and car wrecks in between.”

Both McDonald and Small noted that Cooper is also a good teacher who actively listens to questions and takes time to explain processes.

Max Ford, a long-time friend of Cooper’s, highlighted how he not only explains the importance of the judicial process to jurors, but encourages individuals to get involved in local government.

“He talked me into running for (county) council,” said Ford.

Cooper said he thinks patience is what makes a good judge.

“There are two sides to every story, and my mediation experience was very valuable in terms of trying to find solutions to problems,” he said. “We are problem solvers in the sense that if you imagine all of the litigation that is filed, in this state for example … there is just this cloud of cases and they have to be resolved. And if you look at it as sort of a funnel, we are the traffic cops that get the cases resolved through this imaginary funnel and that is what our job is … to somehow process this myriad of cases and get them to some resolution.”

Cooper is authorized to practice law in all South Carolina courts, U.S. district court for the S.C. District of Columbia, the United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court. He noted, however, that he has never has had a case before the Supreme Court of the United States, but had a case which could have been taken to that level.

“I was told by the lawyers for the other side that if my client won, they were appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court because it was an issue that could have involved religious freedom. It could have been taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court, so I went ahead and got my credentials and my admission to the Supreme Court. As it turned out I never did go. It means that you are just admitted to practice in those courts,” Cooper explained.

He admits to having some interesting cases as a judge, with the majority of his time on the bench being on the criminal side. Cooper recalled three cases in particular: Dwain Herring, a Columbia lawyer who ended up shot in a strip club and was convicted of killing the club’s manager; Jeffery Weston, who eventually admitted to dismembering his mother then burying her body parts behind a Piggly Wiggly; and Vincent Filyaw, who he sentenced for 421 years for kidnapping and raping a 14-year-old girl from Lugoff.

“The reason for that (421-year sentence) was that none of the charges that he was accused of carried a life sentence. I wanted to give him a life sentence, but none of them carried a life sentence. Kidnapping only carries a maximum of 30, criminal sexual conduct with a child only carries 20 or 30, and possession of a weapon, all of the charges, you know they threw the book at him,” Cooper said. “So what I did was give him the maximum on each one and then made them run consecutive. As I tell people, he will be eligible for parole in 300 years.”

He said the most difficult part of being a judge is sentencing “good people who do bad things.”

“For example in a felony DUI (driving under the influence), somebody is dead and somebody has been drinking. Take the case of a young person who has a friend and they are out together and the driver has too much to drink, runs off the road and kills his friend. This person may be a student, or maybe holds a job and has a family. You have two families whose lives are ruined and what do you do about it? It is real difficult. A lot of tears, a lot of emotion over the dead person and people seeking revenge versus and on the other side the family asking for mercy,” Cooper said.

He said the most rewarding aspect of the job is the opportunity to practice law.

“Those of us who do it, I think we generally love doing it,” Cooper said, adding, “When I put on that robe it is a very humbling experience to me. I realize the power that robe gives me based on the respect on the community … any community. I have put on that robe and walked into a courtroom and have said many times … ‘why me?’ It is a very humbling feeling that the community trusts me to do the right thing. Yes, I can sentence somebody to death, that’s a pretty humbling thought: that the power that state has entrusted those of us that do it. Judge (Jean) Toal (chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court) likes to use the expression, ‘This is a lonely business.’”

Cooper won’t be alone at the unveiling. Toal is likely to appear, along with family, friends and colleagues within the court system.

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