U. S. District Court Judge Anthony A. Alaimo was once described as “tough as woodpecker lips” by a fellow judge. The description was accurate, according to attorneys and others who frequent the federal courtroom in Brunswick, Georgia, where Alaimo now serves as a senior judge.
This month, the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick honored Judge Alaimo, a resident of Sea Island, for his long service by awarding him an honorary doctoral degree, the first ever presented by the four-year institution. Alaimo also delivered the commencement to the first class to graduate from the college, whose predecessor was a two-year community college.
Brunswick attorney Jim Bishop, a regent of the University System of Georgia, introduced Alaimo as a long-time friend who mentored him as a lawyer.
“No person has been a stronger voice for our community than the man we honor here tonight,” Bishop said.
That strong voice was heard around Georgia and across the nation as well. Alaimo is recognized for a number of precedent-setting decisions, most notably the historic Guthrie case which was, at the time, one of the most unpopular lawsuits in state history.
Guthrie, a prisoner, was the lead defendant in a suit against Georgia’s maximum security prison at Reidsville, which was a hellhole where rats and sewage ran free in the cells; where prisoners were routinely killed or maimed by fellow prisoners or brutal guards; where food was spoiled by age or contaminated by rodent droppings.
With the help of civil rights attorneys, Guthrie and other defendants filed suit in federal court, pleading for improvements.
The Georgia legislature and the state Department of Corrections fought the suit tooth and nail in part because the reforms would cost the state, and hence the taxpayers, millions of dollars. In addition, many at the time felt that prisoners deserved no more than what they were getting at Reidsville.
Alaimo, a naturalized U. S. citizen, piloted a bomber that was shot down in the ocean during World War II. He was taken prisoner by the Germans and made three escape attempts before finally succeeding.
When the legislature and correction officials dragged their heels at making the reforms at Reidsville, Alaimo seized control of the prison, installed a federal monotor and made sure the improvements were made. Settlement of the lawsuit took not years but decades. Papers filed back and forth fill, not filing cabinets, but entire rooms.
For many years, Alaimo was publicly reviled for forcing Georgia to make the reforms.
Even before the suit was finally settled, Reidsville had become a model for prison reform and prisoners’ rights nationwide. By that time, legislators and officials of the Department of Corrections were expressing pride in the facility and were happy to take credit for the improvements.
Alaimo has served as a federal judge since his appointment in 1971 by President Nixon. He served as chief judge of Georgia’s Southern District for 14 years and moved to senior status in 1991. Most senior judges work only on special cases or fill in when other judges need them.
Not Alaimo. Even now, at 89, he still works long hours every day.
He is not a big man but when he mounts the bench in his billowing black robes, he is a commanding presence in the high-ceilinged, formal federal courtroom in Brunswick that bears his name. He is invariably courteous, even to convicted felons. He speaks in a soft voice; those in the courtroom often have to strain to hear his words.
He carries a big stick, however. Attorneys have long since learned not to come to his courtroom unprepared or posturing. Potential jurors do not wear inappropriate clothing or offer weak excuses for not serving. Even defendants with a reputation for acting out in other courtrooms behave themselves in Alaimo’s presence.
During his commencement address at the College of Coastal Georgia, Alaimo said the current economic woes offer an opportunity for economic and social change.
“You are bonded by shared experience and have the opportunity to begin to restore and emphasize the rules of yesteryear: honesty, honor and integrity,” Alaimo told the graduates.
He asked them to adhere to the high ethical and moral standards necessary to sustain a just civilization.
Judge Alaimo himself sets a shining example for the graduates to follow.