U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent died last month. During his career as a judge and lawyer which spanned more than half a century, Judge DeMent was instrumental in bringing sweeping change to Alabama’s foster care, mental health care and prison systems. He consistently sought to protect those who are the most vulnerable in our society. According a former law clerk, Dana Taunton of our personal injury section, one of Judge DeMent’s favorite Bible verses was Luke 12:48, “To whom much is given, from him much will be required.” His commitment to be a good steward of the tremendous opportunities he was given was evident throughout his career. Judge DeMent made a lasting impact on the State of Alabama.
Judge DeMent served as a U.S. attorney for eight years, a position to which he was appointed in 1969 and 1973 by then-President Richard Nixon. Judge DeMent prosecuted landmark lawsuits that reformed the mental health system where there were untold, ongoing abuses. Judge DeMent, as U.S. attorney, also prosecuted a case on behalf of the Justice Department that addressed numerous injustices in Alabama’s prison system. Judge DeMent was a strong advocate for civil rights during a difficult period in Alabama’s history. Princeton University recognized Judge DeMent in 1976 for his work as U.S. Attorney with the Rockefeller Public Service Award in management of conflict. John D. Rockefeller III, in a letter to Judge DeMent, wrote that “… one of the great strengths of our society is the spirit of public service and the underlying importance of individual initiative. It was because your own work so typifies these qualities that you received the award.”
After his appointment to the federal bench in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, Judge DeMent ruled that Alabama’s school prayer statute which authorized student-led, student-initiated school prayer was unconstitutional. Though unpopular among many Alabamians, Judge DeMent in accordance with his duty followed the law established by the United States Supreme Court. In another historic decision, Judge DeMent ordered an overhaul in the state’s treatment of abused and neglected children. Judge DeMent considered Judge Frank M. Johnson his mentor and tried to follow in his footsteps as a judge. I can say from experience in his courtroom, that he was highly successful in that endeavor. I can’t think of a better role model for any new judge.
Judge DeMent’s personal discipline went back to his days at Marion Military Institute, where he graduated in 1951 as a distinguished military student after graduating from Phillips High School in Birmingham in 1949. He served in the U.S. Army Infantry in Germany from 1953 to 1955, and in the Army Reserve and then the Air Force Reserve until 1989. He rose to the rank of major general and was awarded the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the military’s highest peace-time award. He previously had received the Legion of Merit.
Whether as a Judge, U.S. Attorney, Major General, or private lawyer, Judge Ira DeMent was deeply committed to justice and fairness and to duty and honor; he fearlessly pursued those ideals regardless of the popularity of his actions. Judge DeMent was a good man, a tremendous judge and achieved more in his lifetime than most anybody I have known over the years. He was my friend, a great public servant, and we will all miss him.
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