Cooper, Robert Elbert

Retired Tennessee Supreme Court Justice And Chief Justice

Monday, July 11, 2016

Robert Elbert Cooper, 95, retired Tennessee Supreme Court Justice and Chief Justice, died at his home on Signal Mountain, Tennessee, on July 10, 2016, after a brief illness.

Justice Cooper was born in Chattanooga on October 14, 1920, to John Thurman and Inez Hollingsworth Cooper.  He graduated from Chattanooga High School in 1936, from Edmondson School of Business in 1937, and began work with the Railway Express Agency in Chattanooga.

Justice Cooper enlisted in the U.S. Navy on December 12, 1941, as part of the first group of volunteers from Tennessee after Pearl Harbor, following in the footsteps of his father, who was in the first group of Tennessee Navy volunteers in the first world war.  He was selected for the V-12 program and NROTC, and received his BA degree, Phi Beta Kappa, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1946, where he was a member of Kappa Sigma Social Fraternity.  He retired as Lt. Commander, Naval Intelligence, U.S. Naval Reserve.  

Justice Cooper graduated from Vanderbilt University Law School in 1949, Order of the Coif, member of the Vanderbilt Law Review and Phi Alpha Delta legal fraternity.  He joined Kolwyck & Clark in Chattanooga in 1949, formed Cooper & Barger with Al Barger in 1951, and worked as an assistant district attorney from 1951-53. 

Justice Cooper was appointed judge of the Sixth Judicial Circuit in November 1953 by Governor Frank Clement and was twice elected to that post by the Hamilton County voters.  In 1960, he was appointed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, by Governor Buford Ellington and twice elected statewide to the court.

Justice Cooper was elected by state-wide vote to the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1974 and reelected in 1982, retiring in 1990.  He served two 19-month terms as Chief Justice.  The 1974 court is widely respected for modernizing Tennessee's jurisprudence through landmark cases in both civil and criminal law and reforming the administration of justice by adopting a stricter Code of Judicial Conduct, creating a Board of Professional Responsibility to investigate and discipline lawyers, adopting rules of evidence and new rules of criminal and appellate procedure, and other improvements.

Justice Cooper was chair of the Tennessee Judicial Counsel, 1967-1990, of the Tennessee Code Commission, 1976-78, 1984-85, and was a member of the Tennessee Judicial Standards Committee, 1971-77.  He was a member of Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in American Law.

Justice Cooper was Past Master, Highland Park Lodge 734, Free and Accepted Masons; 33rd degree Scottish Rite Mason; Knight Templar York Rite Mason; Past Potentate, Alhambra Shrine Temple, Chattanooga; Past Director, Court 39, Royal Order of Jesters; Past Sovereign, Red Cross of Constantine; Member, Royal Order of Scotland; DeMolay Legion of Honor (honorary); Representative, Imperial Shrine Association since 1964; Representative, Imperial Shrine Hospital Association since 1964; member of standing Committee on Jurisprudence and Laws of the Imperial Shrine Association and the Hospital Association since 1976.

Justice Cooper joined Second Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga in 1948 and served as Sunday School teacher, Deacon, Elder, Clerk of Session, and Chairman of Board of Trustees.

Justice Cooper fell in love with Catherine Kelly of Sylacauga, AL, while both were students at Chapel Hill, and they married in 1949.  He is survived by his wife, sister Mary Myles Kimsey, children Susan Hodges (Charles), Bobbie Martin (Bruce), Kelly Smith (Jack), Robert Cooper Jr., grandchildren Catherine Hodges, Chase Hodges (Katy), Andrew Martin (Heather), Rob Martin (Ryan), Sarah Smith, Jack Smith, and three great-grandchildren.  The family extends its deep gratitude to Wanda Albritton, Ina Smith, Candice Campbell, and Hospice of Chattanooga for the care they have given to Robert and Catherine.

The family will receive friends from 4-8 p.m. on Friday, July 15, at East Chapel, Chattanooga Funeral Home, 404 South Moore Road.  

Services will be on Saturday, July 16, 11 a.m. at Second Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga, 700 Pine Street, with visitation in the church beginning at 10 a.m. Burial will be at Chattanooga National Cemetery at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Shriners Hospital for Children, Second Presbyterian Church, and Hospice of Chattanooga.

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