Judge Robert Summitt Dies At 94

Saturday, June 16, 2018
Judge Robert Summitt
Judge Robert Summitt

Retired Circuit Court Judge Robert M. (“Bob”) Summitt, died at his home on Saturday at the age of 94.

He was born January 14, 1924 on a farm in Sweetwater, Tennessee.  He was educated in the public schools of Monroe County, Tennessee, graduating from Sweetwater High School in 1942.  He served as a Boys State representative in 1941 and remained a faithful supporter of Boys State.  He did his undergraduate studies on the GI bill at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and graduated from the University of Tennessee School of Law in 1949.


During World War II, he served in Naval Aviation and Army Infantry.  He had a long tenure in the Air Force Reserve and retired as Lieutenant Colonel.  He was a recipient of a Medal of Meritorious Service and was a member of the Silver Falcon Association, Air Force Reserve Officers Association and Retired Reserve Officers Association.


In 1949, he moved to Chattanooga to begin his law career with fellow Monroe County native and mentor Estes Kefauver.  While in Chattanooga, he met Florence (“Flo”) Varnell, and they were married in 1955.  He worked as an associate with the law firm of Spears, Reynolds, Moore and Rebman.  In 1956 he left to become a partner with Cunningham, Crutchfield and Summitt and then co-founded Coffey and Summitt in 1963, where he was joined by law partner and friend Tom O’Neal in 1965.


In addition to his private practice, Judge Summitt was the attorney for Hamilton County for 11 years, the attorney for the Hamilton County School Board, and served as Hamilton County Coroner for almost 10 years and briefly as Hamilton County Sheriff.  He also served as the attorney for the World Boxing Association when it revoked Muhammad Ali’s boxing license after Ali refused to be inducted into the US Army.


Judge Summitt got involved with politics and in 1964 won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives for the 3rd district of Tennessee, but lost in a close race in the general election.  During his campaigns he met John F. Kennedy and rode on Air Force One with President Lyndon B. Johnson.


After 20 years in private practice, he was appointed to the bench of the First Division, Eleventh Judicial District of the State of Tennessee by Governor Buford Ellington in 1968.  He was elected to a full eight-year term in 1974 and re-elected in 1982 and 1990.


 After serving 30 years as a circuit court judge, Judge Summitt retired on August 31, 1998.  During his years on the bench, he served as president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference, Chair of the National Conference of State Trial Judges, as a member of the house of Delegates for the American Bar Association, faculty of the National Judicial College, and was appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court to an eight-year term on the Court of Judiciary. 


Judge Summitt served on numerous community boards and committees.  He was Chairman of Cherokee Area Council of the Boys Scouts and national representative of the Boys Scouts of America Member Advisory Board.  He served on the board of the Salvation Army for over 60 years, including serving as board president. He was past State Commander and on the National Executive Committee of the American Legion.  He was a long-time member of the Downtown Rotary Club, President of the Sons of the American Revolution, a 33rd Degree Mason, a member of York and Scottish Rites, President of the Chattanooga Armed Forces Celebration, board member of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, on the UTC Advisory Board, member of the UT Alumni Association Century Club and a life member of Alhambra Temple.


Among his honors, he was the 1959 recipient of the Jaycee’s “Young Man of the Year” Award, the 1976 recipient of the Boys Scouts of America “Silver Beaver” award, the 1984 recipient of the Downtown Sertoma Club’s “National Heritage” award, the 2001 recipient of the Chattanooga Bar Association’s “Ralph H. Kelley Humanitarian” award, was named “Who’s Who on the American Bench” and was honored in 2011 by the Tennessee Bar Association for exceptional service on behalf of the American Bar Association. 


Judge Summitt was a long-time member of First Centenary United Methodist Church where he served as a Sunday School teacher and on the Board of Trustees. 


A memorial service will be held on Wednesday at 12 p.m. at First Centenary United Methodist Church with Dr. Douglas Fairbanks officiating. Burial service will follow at the National Cemetery with military honors.  Visitation at the church will be from 10 a.m. to noon prior to the service.


In lieu of flowers, memorial acknowledgments may be directed to First Centenary United Methodist Church, 419 McCallie Ave, Chattanooga, TN 37402, to the Cherokee Area Council Boys Scouts of America, 6031 Lee Hwy, Chattanooga, TN 37421, or to the Salvation Army, 822 McCallie Ave, Chattanooga, TN 37403.


Arrangements are by Heritage Funeral Home, Battlefield Parkway.


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