Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Elbert Cooper was praised Monday as a "judge's judge" who was fair to all sides and worked to improve the professionalism of judges in Tennessee.
Cooper, 95, died Sunday at his Signal Mountain home after a short illness, according to his son, Robert E. Cooper Jr., former Tennessee attorney general.
"He was extremely courteous, and asked good questions, but he was always very practical," said former state Supreme Court Chief Justice William "Mickey" Barker.
"His questions would be about what would be the implications if he ruled a certain way, what is the public policy involved, why is this a good ruling," said Barker, now of counsel with Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel in Chattanooga. "He made you dig deep into things besides the law. But he knew the law better than anybody I've ever known."
"I learned a lot trying cases in front of him — he had a great way of reaching young lawyers," said former Tennessee and Chattanooga bar association president Max Bahner, now senior counsel with Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel. "When he thought you ought to object, he would look over at you. He taught me to really prepare."
"He was not a one-topic person. He could talk to you in detail about history and about ideas," Bahner said. "He was a man who was really intent on making the law work as it is supposed to in a free society."
Cooper was born in Chattanooga in 1920 and graduated from Chattanooga High School in 1936. After earning a degree from the Edmondson School of Business, he began work with Southeastern Express. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy after Pearl Harbor.
Cooper graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a law degree from Vanderbilt University Law School. After law school, he first joined the firm of Kolwyck & Clark in Chattanooga before forming Cooper & Barger with Al Barger in 1951.
Cooper also worked as an assistant district attorney in Chattanooga before being appointed circuit court judge in 1953. He was twice elected to that post in Hamilton County.
He was appointed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals by Gov. Buford Ellington and twice won re-election to that position before winning a statewide election for the state Supreme Court in 1974. He was re-elected in 1982 and served for 19 months as chief justice.
The court elected in 1974 is credited with adopting a stricter Code of Judicial Conduct, creating a Board of Professional Responsibility to oversee attorneys, adopting new rules of evidence and of criminal and appellate procedure.
Cooper was chairman of the Tennessee Judicial Council from 1967 until 1990. He also was chairman of the Tennessee Code Commission on two occasions and was a member of the Tennessee Judicial Standards Committee, 1971-77.
"We all count ourselves fortunate to have had the benefit for so many years of his great wisdom, ready advice and vast knowledge of Chattanooga, the city he loved," said Justice Cooper's son, Robert Jr. "But we were even more blessed by his fierce love for his family. We will miss him greatly."
The funeral service will be Saturday at Second Presbyterian Church.