Justice Adolpho A. Birch Jr. — the first African-American elected to serve as chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court and a towering figure in the state — has died at 78.
Birch, the man for whom downtown Nashville’s handsome A.A. Birch Building is named, died Thursday after a lengthy bout of poor health.
Birch grew up in Washington, D.C., and would later serve as a reservist in the U.S. Navy. He moved to Nashville in the late 1950s, at which point he taught medical law at Meharry Medical College and law at Fisk and Tennessee State universities.
In time, his career began to become more high profile, as then Gov. Ned McWherter would appoint Birch to the Tennessee Court of Appeals in 1987. Birch joined the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1990.
During his tenure, he was known, in part, for his attention to social justice. Birch always voted down the death penalty in capital punishment cases.
In a statement, Mayor Karl Dean said he respected Birch both "personally and professionally.""I met him 27 years ago when I was an assistant public defender appearing in his courtroom," Dean said. " As he blazed new trails in the legal profession, over time I became fortunate enough to call him a friend and a valued mentor."
Dean called Birch "a champion for the law, equality, the poor and the underserved."
State Senator Thelma Harper issued the following statement:
“Justice Birch was a close friend of mine, a mentor to many, and a pillar of leadership for Nashville and the state of Tennessee. His presence will most certainly be missed, but Justice Birch’s legacy will continue through the countless people who looked up to him as an example of fairness and honor. We would all do well to strive toward the standard he set in his life and his service.”
Gov. Bill Haslam called Birch "a pioneer."
"He inspired generations of Tennesseans and enjoyed a distinguished career," Haslam said in a statement. "He made our state a better place, and I am grateful for his work for all of us. Crissy's and my thoughts and prayers are with his family and those across the state mourning his loss.”