BRACK: Gwinnett to lose its most senior government official soon

By Elliott Brack, editor and publisher |  Gwinnett will soon lose its highest ranking Federal official, as Judge William C. O’Kelley and his wife are moving their residence from Norcross to their farm on Lake Lanier near Murrayville in Hall County. Actually, Judge O’Kelley is the highest Federal official in Georgia, and possibly the Southeast.

In his 47th year on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, O’Kelley, now 87, was appointed to the lifetime tenure by President Richard Nixon in 1970. He remembers the day he learned of the appointment:

“I was in Jacksonville, Fla., with a client at his office, and got a call from the White House. They surprised me saying that the president had sent my name to the Congress to be appointed to the court. I immediately got a plane back to Atlanta. This was in early October and the Congress was going to adjourn sine die in 10 days, and if not approved by that time, the nomination would cease to exist.

“We had just a few days to get approved from the Georgia senators’ (Russell and Talmadge).  In the same week I got the senator’s approval, was confirmed by the Congress, and was sworn in on October 14, 1970. It was fast!”

Back in 2005, former and current law clerks and friends of Bill O’Kelley raised money to fund a scholarship at Emory University in the judge’s name. Eventually, the fund eventually topped $100,000. Bill and Teeny O’Kelley hold up a check mock-up of the scholarship funding at a reception in his honor.

Judge O’Kelley is a native of Atlanta, graduated from Emory University and its law school and got married to Teeny (Allen) immediately after law school. Two weeks later he was commissioned  an officer in the Air Force and served as a lawyer for four years, including time in Albany, Ga., Japan and French Morocco. For two years, his home in Morocco was at the Sidi Slimane Air Base of the  Strategic Air Command, where the family lived on the base “in a desert between Fez and Rabat,” he says.

After his military duty, O’Kelley formed a partnership with his former law school classmate, Lowell Hopkins, in a general practice (later O’Kelley, Hopkins and van Gerpen), primarily doing insurance casualty work, defending auto firms in liability cases and with a limited real estate practice of reviewing loans.

He was active in Republican Party circles. “I did not want to be in elected politics.  I enjoyed supporting and working for the right people. I just wanted to practice law.”

The O’Kelleys initially lived in Chamblee, but moved to Gwinnett in Norcross during a freak “blizzard” on December 31, 1963.   “Bill wanted to be in the house on January 1 to get the homestead exemption,” Teeny remembers. The road ended at their house, and they could barely see another house.

When Judge O’Kelley was practicing law, the Northern District Court had only two judges. President John Kennedy added another, and in 1969 President Nixon added three more judicial slots, including Judge O’Kelley. Today the court has 11 judges, plus five judges with “senior status,” including O’Kelley, meaning they have a greatly reduced caseload.

“I have about half the caseload I had before,” the judge says. But the work has changed over the years, with fewer trials.  “Today it’s mostly writing opinions on written motions,” he says. “I’ve not tried a jury case in several months.”  Judge O’Kelley has worked principally out of the Gainesville district office for many years, though he also has an office in Atlanta.

Living near Murrayville, he’ll reduce his office commute, which is 40 miles from Norcross, to about 10 miles. The O’Kelleys have two children and five grandchildren and two great granddaughters. They have sold their Norcross home, and plan to move next week.

Though the O’Kelleys will be just up the road, Gwinnett will miss them.