After nearly four decades serving as a judge in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, the Honorable William A. Prior Jr. will not seek re-election to another term.
But he isn’t planning to leave the bench any time soon.
Prior, who has served as a Superior Court judge in the eight-county circuit, the largest circuit in Georgia, will serve out the remainder of his term, which ends Dec. 31 of this year.
And even then, he doesn’t plan to go into full-time retirement. Instead, he’s already talking about serving as senior judge of the circuit. In that role, he could also serve as a special judge in other cases outside the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit.
“I’m in my 39th year,” Prior said.
Prior, a native of Morgan County and who still resides there, was first appointed to a judgeship position by the late Ga. Gov. George Busbee.
It didn’t just happen, though, as Prior recalled during an interview Monday morning with The Union-Recorder in the Baldwin County Courthouse in Milledgeville.
“I had a lot of help from a longtime state legislator named Roy Lambert,” Prior said. “He was a longtime member of the legislature.”
The late lawmaker served Morgan County as a state representative.
“In all honesty, that’s how I got started,” Prior said. “Roy was very influential and had helped Gov. Busbee.”
Prior’s nearly 40 years on the bench as a judge mark his second career in life.
Before becoming a trial lawyer and judge, Prior served 31 years in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“That was active-duty and reserve time,” said Prior, noting he retired after earning the full rank of colonel. “It just proves that if you stay around long enough, you’ll get promoted.”
In all seriousness, Prior said he thoroughly enjoyed his time — both active-duty and reserve-duty in the Marine Corps.
Prior said he made his decision not to seek re-election to another term as judge during the Christmas holidays.
“I started having trouble with my left knee back in the fall and it got worse; I started having more and more trouble with it,” Prior said. “Over Christmas, I thought I’m going to get this fixed and just not run (for re-election).”
Prior underwent right knee reconstruction several years ago.
He pointed out that he didn’t want to have to get other judges to cover for him while he was out with knee surgery.
“It’s unhandy for the other judges,” Prior said. “So, I’m going to go ahead and take care of that left knee with surgery, because it’s only getting worse. It’s not something that just gets better without the surgery.”
Prior said lightheartedly that as everyone gets older, “the parts just start wearing out.”
Prior currently presides as chief judge of the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit. It’s a position he has held since he assumed it from Hugh Thompson, who held it for several years before his ascension to the Supreme Court of Georgia.
“That came about, I believe, sometime around 1992 or 1993,” Prior said. “I’m not positive.”
Between now and the end of this year, Prior will be just as busy as he’s always been.
“The calendar has a lot on it already,” he said with a laugh.
He plans on staying busy in retirement.
“I’m hoping to become senior judge,” he said. “In that role, if someone has a conflict and they need someone to cover for them, a senior judge is asked to do it,” Prior said.
Prior said he wouldn’t know what else to do except to continue working.
“Tell you the truth, I’ve been working all my life,” Prior said. “I wouldn’t know what else to do.”
Prior, who has presided over dozens and dozens of high-profile criminal cases over the years in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, including several death penalty cases, said he enjoys serving the people within the circuit’s eight counties. Those counties include Baldwin, Hancock, Wilkinson, Putnam, Greene, Jasper, Morgan and Jones.
“We had a lot of death penalty cases, and I did a lot of them,” Prior said.
He recalled two former district attorneys, Joe Briley and Fred Bright, prosecuted several defendants in death penalty cases within the circuit during his time as a judge.
Prior said he and Briley were good friends and he described him as an excellent trial attorney.
“When I practiced law, he and I tried several cases together,” Prior said. “He was the prosecutor, and I was a defense attorney. We always got along well together.”
Prior practiced law for nine years out of his private law office in Madison after returning home from his career in the military.
He later served on the bench as a judge, and the rest is history.
“And I was the judge in a lot of death penalty cases involving Briley and Fred Bright,” Prior said. “I always preceded as fairly as I could in each of those cases. The jury in those kinds of cases makes the final decision.”
Prior is a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law and he has an undergraduate degree from Virginia Military Institute.
He said he has enjoyed getting to know a lot of people over the years by working in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit.
“I’ve met a lot of really nice people in this circuit through the years and I really liked getting to know them,” Prior said. “I’ve always gotten along with the lawyers, sheriffs. I just like the people that I deal with and I look forward to going to work most mornings.”