The Honorable John Charles Thomas Accepts Top VBA Honor
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
John Charles Thomas, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia and now senior partner at Hunton & Williams LLP in Richmond, accepted the highest honor of The Virginia Bar Association. The Gerald L. Baliles Distinguished Service Award is given in recognition and appreciation of exceptional service and contributions to the bar and public at large.
The award presentation occurred Jan. 22 during the VBA’s 126th Annual Meeting in Williamsburg. Additional honors recognized outstanding efforts of three other individuals and included the unveiling of the latest VBA-commissioned portrait of a state Supreme Court justice.
Thomas is the 17th recipient of the VBA's highest honor, first given in 1988. Recent recipients include retired Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser and former Govs. A. Linwood Holton Jr., L. Douglas Wilder, and Gerald L. Baliles, for whom the award was renamed in 2008.
Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons of the Supreme Court of Virginia presented the 2016 award, chronicling Thomas’s life and leadership in the community. Thomas was one of a handful of children chosen to integrate Norfolk’s all-white Maury High School in 1965. At the University of Virginia, he was one of a dozen or so black students in a class of 1,400.
“While he was a student at U.Va., Linwood Holton was elected governor,” Lemons said. “One of Holton’s campaign promises was to include more young people in government.” He explained that Thomas wrote Holton a letter saying that he was a young government major and that he wanted to be in government. “Governor Holton appointed him to the Virginia Commission for Children and Youth, and that made John Charles the youngest government official in America,” Lemons said.
Thomas continued to break down barriers, becoming the first black lawyer at Hunton & Williams, and the first black partner at the firm in 1982. “One year after he made partner, there was a vacancy on the Supreme Court of Virginia,” Lemons said. “The House and Senate could not agree on a candidate, so when the General Assembly adjourned, Governor Robb appointed John Charles and he was subsequently confirmed by the General Assembly. Not only was he the first African-American appointed to the court, he was also only 32 years old, the youngest in the court’s history.”
Lemons said, “One of the lasting changes John Charles brought to the bench is the way he influenced the court’s treatment of oral arguments. … John Charles viewed oral argument as a more interactive process, and would ask the attorneys many questions. He helped the other justices see the usefulness of this approach and how it could benefit the court.”
Thomas retired from the court after just six years because of a health crisis, but recovered completely and returned to Hunton & Williams, where he is chief of its appellate practice group. In addition to his involvement in the VBA, he is a member of the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, serves on the board of visitors for the College of William & Mary and is a trustee of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
“The American promise is not one of equality of circumstances,” Lemons said. “But the American promise is the promise of equal standing before the law, the ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness; and the promise that hard work will pay off. John Charles Thomas is living proof of these promises and his success is an inspiration to the members of the bar and the citizens of the commonwealth.”
Thomas said he did not set out to break down barriers but “all of a sudden you look up and they say, ‘Wow. History was made.’” Most times, he said, he simply tried to do his best work and be a breadwinner, and sometimes that included trying to make a difference, trying to help and trying to open society.
In his acceptance remarks, Thomas, who often speaks through poetry, recited a composition of his, "Light the Soul."
Light the Soul
"Light lay quietly at the Beginning
'Til it was called into action by God
Then it split the darkness, warmed the cold
Brought motion to the stillness, touched our souls
And they say there is light at the end
As we brace ourselves for the final journey
The Word is there is light even then
Light that Blinds you, Binds you, then sets you free
From Alpha to Omega, the Light shines through
From dawn to dusk it orders what we do
By particle and wave it prompts the birds to sing
By pulse and reflection, it points out the way
Light can lift depression, dispel despair
Bring Hope to the weary, lead us from fear
Light can raise up emotions, quiet the storm
Beckon us from rolling seas into the calm
We learn by light, we grow by light
We sit in the dark transfixed by its sight
And as the light flickers our hearts respond
We can see the connections we can feel the bonds
It has been given to some to handle the light
To mold it, to craft it, to bend it to right
It has fallen to some to sculpt what we see
To sharpen, to brighten, to make it run free
To those who would hold light in the their hands
There is much to remember, to understand
In the Right Light, Love can shine
In the Right Light, We can leave Wrong behind
By the Light there is good we can know
In the Light Justice can grow: Light the Soul!"
©11/5/96 John Charles Thomas, published in "Poetry on the Wings of the Morning, Selected Words of John Charles Thomas 1967-2011"