A few weeks ago former Alabama Chief Justice Perry O. Hooper Sr. died at his home in Montgomery at age 91. He was the epitome of the southern gentleman. He was also one of the founding fathers of the modern Republican Party in Alabama.
Hooper Sr. was a GOP leader long before it was cool to be a Republican in Alabama. He was the state’s longtime National Committee Chairman as well as a onetime party chairman. Many of Hooper’s early GOP stalwarts, like Wynton Blount and Jim Martin, used to jest that there were so few Republicans in the state that they could call a state executive committee meeting or convention in a phone booth.
Hooper was a marine as a young man. He graduated from Birmingham Southern and then the University of Alabama School of Law. During this time, he married the love of his life, a beautiful Kappa Delta at Alabama from Montgomery, “Mrs. Marilyn.”
He began his law career in Montgomery. He was elected Probate Judge of Montgomery County in 1964 and reelected in 1970. In 1974, he was elected as a Circuit Judge in Montgomery. In those Montgomery judgeships, he was the first Republican elected since Reconstruction. However, he became the ultimate Republican political pioneer in 1994 when he became the first Republican Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. In fact, he was the first Republican State Justice since Reconstruction.
Today, Republicans hold all nine seats on the Alabama Supreme Court. Hooper broke the ice and paved the way. As a jurist, Judge Hooper was seen as a role model for other judges. He was nonpartisan and fair. Both Democrat and Republican lawyers said he was friendly and treated them with respect and regard in his courtroom.
Suburban Alabamians began voting Republican in the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon presidential race. In fact, Nixon carried Montgomery. The tide turned totally in 1964. The state voted overwhelmingly for Barry Goldwater in what became known as the Southern Goldwater landslide.
Alabamians not only voted for the Republican standard bearer, Goldwater, but a good many pulled the straight Republican lever. This Goldslide put five new Republican congressmen in office, including Bill Dickinson, Jack Edwards and Jim Martin. Judge Hooper also rode this tidal wave to become Montgomery Probate Judge. He used the slogan “Put Barry in the White House and Perry in the Courthouse.” However, this would not to be his toughest race.
Hooper’s perseverance and resolve were exemplary as he won the 1994 State Supreme Court Race and broke the stranglehold that the plaintiff trial lawyers and Democrats held on the Supreme Court. At that time, the state’s and nation’s business community was incensed at the jackpot justice haven that Alabama had fostered. They were determined to root out the plaintiff lawyer oriented/Democratic court. We were called “tort hell” in a cover story by Time Magazine.
The Business Council of Alabama backed Hooper. They also hired one Karl Rove to work on the campaign. The Alabama trial lawyers backed incumbent Sonny Hornsby. It was a bitter and expensive campaign. Hooper narrowly beat Hornsby in the November election by less than 300 votes out of 1.1 million cast. Hornsby and the trial lawyers challenged the election. After a long court battle and several recounts, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Hooper the winner by a final margin of 262 votes.
After Hooper’s win in 1994 the wall was lifted. The Republicans swept the court and have not relinquished any of the seats on the State Supreme Court.
Due to the state’s mandatory age limitation of 70 for judges, Hooper could not run again in 2000. However, if he could have run, his reelection would have been much easier than in 1994.
Judge Hooper is survived by his wife of 63 years, Marilyn, along with his sons, John, Walter, Conwell and Perry Hooper, Jr. and a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Perry Hooper, Jr., affectionately known as “Perry O.”, was my best legislative buddy. He has enjoyed a stellar career highlighted by 20 years as a State Representative from Montgomery.
Judge Hooper was a fine gentleman.
See you next week.