Robert M. Parker, a judge in the state’s seventh judicial circuit from 1964-82, died Sunday at age 82. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Contemporaries who knew Parker away from the legal arena — such as through his devoted Sunday school work at First United Methodist Church, or through many years of Saturday morning breakfasts with him at local restaurants — say the outside observer might not have pegged him as a judicial type.
“He had a unique style about him,” said Tom Coleman, referring to Parker’s laid-back manner that could deceive the unwary, including lawyers during his days on the bench.
“He didn’t let things bother him or upset him — he was just always in control,” Coleman said.
Bob Plummer, another businessman who knew Parker socially, said “he’d seem more like an everyday type person” than a judge.
But Parker was a “very smart” man who had a great recall for names, especially in a sports context, Plummer said, alluding to Parker’s enthusiastic support of the athletic programs at Jacksonville State and at Alabama.
Rev. Woodfin Grove, friend and pastor emeritus at FUMC, agreed.
“Underneath all his fun and his humor, Bob had a really sharp intellect. He’d cut through all the extraneous stuff and get right to the heart of the question,” Grove said.
In court Parker was all business, and worked hard.
U.S. District Judge Robert Propst said he recalled that in the years prior to Parker’s elevation to the circuit judgeship, cases sometimes moved a little slow through the system.
“He jumped right in and carried much more than his load for several years,” Propst said.
Both personal integrity and procedural integrity meant something to Parker. Brenda Stedham, presiding circuit judge over the family court division, learned about that early in her career.
“I’ll never forget the first time I met him. Walt Merrill, my senior partner, took me to the courthouse when I moved here in August of 1981 and introduced me to Judge Parker.” Stedham said. She then got the “best advice” a young lawyer could get.
“He said that if I wanted to get along with him, I must always be honest with him. And from then on, we got along very well indeed.”
Parker himself saw his job as being “the chief conservator of the peace” in presiding over criminal and civil trials, as he expressed it in a 1979 interview.
“The law is supposed to be common sense, mainly,” he said, noting that it was just good “public relations” for a judge to explain to a jury the workings of the court in layman’s terms.
The workings of the court itself were also important. In 1977 Parker asked the county commission to begin plans for establishing a judicial building.
He, like many in the county’s legal community at the time, saw the then-recent addition of a fourth circuit judge was only going worsen the logistical inadequacies of the Calhoun County courthouse.
Then, in 1981, he cited Circuit Clerk Richard Forrest “Hoss’’ Dobbins for contempt of court after the clerk refused Parker’s order to type the docket for the circuit’s criminal and civil cases; Dobbins was writing the docket by hand at the time.
Raised in Birmingham, Parker was an attorney whose practice had concentrated on criminal law prior to his being appointed judge in 1964.
Upon achieving the judicial office, he soon found himself at the center of national attention as the presiding judge at the trial of the white man charged with killing a black man, Willie Brewster.
Later in his career, after losing a primary election for the local circuit court bench, Parker served the judicial community in Birmingham in a supernumerary status.