Former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Mickey Barker dies at 81

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Former Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice William M. “Mickey” Barker reads from the Old Testament at the 41st annual Chattanooga Area Leadership Prayer Breakfast in 2019.

Former Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice William M. "Mickey" Barker died Monday at the age of 81.

Barker, a Chattanooga native and Signal Mountain resident, earned his law degree from the University of Cincinnati and, after a brief enlistment with the U.S. Medical Corp., was appointed to the bench in 1983 by then-Gov. Lamar Alexander. He later became chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court from 1995 to 2009 before returning to private practice with the Chambliss law firm in Chattanooga.

Tennessee State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, on Monday praised Barker as "an extraordinary judge who dedicated his life to strengthening Tennessee's justice system.

"His many years of public service to Chattanooga, Hamilton County and our state are an exceptional legacy," Watson said in a statement Monday.

Barker was one of only three Chattanoogans to serve on Tennessee's Supreme Court in the past half century, following earlier stints as Supreme Court justices by Ray L. Brock from 1974 to 2002 and Robert E. Cooper Sr. from 1974 to 1990, according to "A History of the Tennessee Supreme Court" by James W. Ely.

"He was a very talented and respected individual who had a lot of charisma to appeal to the common man and woman, as well as a great legal mind that earned the continued strong support of the legal community," Chattanooga attorney Jerry Summers, a lifelong friend, said Monday in a telephone interview. "Most importantly, he was a great husband to his wife Cathy and a great father to his three children."

Barker rose to the Supreme Court after serving as a Circuit Court judge in Hamilton County and as a judge on the Tennessee Court of Appeals. Barker was consistently given the highest rating for a Circuit Court judge in Chattanooga Bar Association polls.

"He was an outstanding lawyer and an outstanding judge, and he was perhaps the best storyteller that I have ever known," Hugh Moore, a lawyer who worked with Barker at the Chambliss law firm over the past decade, said in a telephone interview Monday. "He could keep a roomful of people laughing and engaged all evening."

Barker earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Chattanooga. Following graduation from law school, he served for two years as a captain in the Medical Service Corps.

When he retired from the state's high court in 2009, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen praised Barker for serving "with honor and integrity. Tennessee is fortunate to have benefited from his long commitment to public service, " Bredesen said.

At the time of his retirement, he served as chairman of the Tennessee Judicial Council, the Tennessee Code Commission, the Supreme Court Building Commission and the State Law Library Commission.

Barker was a member of the American Law Institute and served on the board of directors of the Conference of Chief Justices and was a former chairman of its Problem-Solving Courts Committee.