New TJC President Judge Roy B. Morgan, Jr., Brings Experience, Spirit of Service to Role

June 23, 2020

Approaching three decades on the bench this September, 26th Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Roy B. Morgan, Jr., the incoming president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference, has just about seen it all. With both civil and criminal jurisdiction in his West Tennessee district, Judge Morgan has presided over pretty much every type of case imaginable, from complex civil cases to domestic cases to capital murder cases. He has delighted in seeing lives turned around in his courtroom and lamented those who perpetually go astray.

Through it all, his judicial philosophy has remained steadfast: “We as judges must treat every case as if it’s the most important case in the world because we want to give the highest degree of justice to all.”  To Judge Morgan, that means constantly emphasizing that judges “serve both justice and people.”

No matter the depths of one’s experience, some things truly are unforeseeable, like entering your term as president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference in the midst of the worst pandemic the world has seen in a century. There is not much precedent to consult in determining how to go forward in those circumstances, but, if anything, Judge Morgan believes that the current situation only amplifies the importance of the TJC. 

“It’s a ‘we’ job,” he said. “Strength is in the numbers, the membership.”

Growing up in public housing in Jackson, Tennessee, Judge Morgan also found strength in family, particularly in the examples of his parents, Helen and Roy. Roy Morgan, Sr., a World War II veteran, was a police officer in Jackson for 19 years who later went into the private sector. Roy Sr. also served on the Madison County Court (now the Madison County Commission) and the Jackson City Council.

Judge Morgan “always grew up with a work ethic” thanks to his parents. That work ethic led Judge Morgan to hold a job at J.C. Penney on nights and weekends all through high school. When it came time for college, he decided he wanted to go away, but not too far. He settled on the University of Mississippi, a school he had never even visited, but one that was just about a two-hour drive from home.

At Ole Miss, Judge Morgan majored in business, but had the bad luck of graduating in the midst of a recession.  With a lackluster job market in front of him, Judge Morgan began considering law school as an option. He had an uncle who had become a lawyer, and the more he thought about it, the more it became a possibility.

In December 1974, he went back home to Jackson and took a step toward the legal world by accepting an appointment as city court clerk. He stayed in that position for eight months.

“I had my first contact with the court system and then left to go to the University of Memphis law school in 1975,” he said.

When he earned his law degree in 1978, home beckoned once again. Judge Morgan returned to Jackson and set up a private practice. He was also appointed city tax attorney and, a little while later, an assistant city attorney of Jackson.

Judge Morgan thrived as an attorney, especially enjoying those moments when he got to make a real difference in the lives of his fellow citizens.

“A lot of those people you could help you had known all your life, or your family had known,” he said. “That was the good part of it, when you could help people.”

Judge Morgan was in private practice for 12 years before he moved on to the next phase of his career. It was one that he had never really seriously considered until the opportunity arose.

“I never planned on being a judge,” he said. “I just planned on practicing law, but I received a call one day from the general sessions judge saying he was retiring. He said I should run for the job. That phone call obviously changed my direction and life.”

Judge Morgan talked to family, friends, and other lawyers in town to get their advice on the matter. He decided to go for it, only later realizing that going for it entailed getting embroiled in an election featuring three other candidates. He had not counted on a competitive race, but he came out on top all the same and first took his seat on the Madison County General Sessions Court bench in 1990. The fact that he shared the same name as his well-known and well-liked father may have played a role in his early success he admits.

“I remember when I first was elected, an old lawyer who helped me try my first jury trial said, ‘You know they elected your father don’t you,’” Judge Morgan remembered with amusement. “His name recognition was there. That lawyer was just being honest.”

One of Judge Morgan’s fondest memories from that time is meeting other judges who were new to the bench at a special training session.

“I remember so vividly going there for the first time and meeting these people who had just been elected and how excited we were to be together and start this new phase of our life,” he said. Many of those people have moved on to serve in the trial or appellate level of the court system and remain good friends of Judge Morgan’s to this day.

Judge Morgan loved his experience on the general sessions bench, but after eight years he was again approached by a retiring judge and the Circuit Court Clerk. Judge Morgan agreed to run for the Circuit Court position and ran unopposed in 1998. He was elected and reelected in unopposed races in 2006 and 2014 as well.

The move from general sessions court to circuit court meant new challenges and more complex cases. Once again, Judge Morgan’s commitment to hard work paid off, especially when his docket got heavy. He recalls at one point presiding over 19 criminal jury trials in 21 days, for instance. No matter the workload, though, Judge Morgan has always approached his role with gratitude.

“I’m blessed,” he said. “I’m so thankful for the opportunity. This has been a great job, and the whole 30 years has been a tremendous opportunity.”

One of the highlights of his career has been working with juries.

“I can’t say enough about the jury panels, those citizens,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed so much meeting them and letting them know what we’re doing and how important they are to our legal system. You realize how important it was that our Founding Fathers so many years ago realized the jury system is the cornerstone for our judicial process.” 

Nothing has given him more joy over the years, though, than seeing lives transformed for the better in his courtroom.

“It is always satisfying when you can say we did not just handle a case, we solved a problem,” Judge Morgan said. Whether those problems were related to domestic issues, financial responsibilities, substance use disorders, or something else, Judge Morgan has always been inspired by watching people make positive and lasting changes.

Sometimes those people will send word, saying or writing some variation of, “You might not remember me, but you did something that made a difference in my life.” Those moments never cease to give Judge Morgan a feeling of pride for those individuals who have overcome significant obstacles.

Conversely, some of the lowest moments of his time on the bench have come when he has been confronted by repeat offenders who seem unreachable.

“The saddest part, and sometimes the hardest part, is seeing that we couldn’t make a difference,” Judge Morgan said.

While he may have been a part of making a positive difference in the lives of countless people who have come into his courtroom over his 30 years of service, so, too, have his colleagues across the state made positive differences in his life. Like many judges, he describes the Tennessee Judicial Conference as a big family, always ready and eager to offer support and encouragement both professionally and personally.

“When they know you have issues, they’re there,” he said. “You build relationships from the first conference you go to.”

One of the negative results of the pandemic for judges is that the in-person conferences that are usually such a big part of the TJC each year are currently suspended. Judge Morgan hopes that the conferences will be able to resume before too long, as he thinks they play a crucial role for Tennessee judges.

“The judicial conference is a critical tool to get judges together for the purposes of education and communication so that we can keep serving justice, serving people and maintaining our judicial integrity and independence,” he said.

While Judge Morgan acknowledged that there is no way of knowing what the future holds, he is optimistic about the Tennessee judiciary’s ability to respond to whatever challenges may lie ahead.

“We are serving in unusual times,” he said. “The good part is that even in these difficult times we’ve had great leadership from the Supreme Court, and the executive and legislative branches. Because of that and the hard work of judges across the state, the judiciary has been able to stand up strong and keep the doors of the judicial branch open.”

Outside of the courtroom, Judge Morgan has been involved with various organizations over the years, including the local bar, the American Red Cross, and his church. Now, he devotes most of his private time to his family, which includes his wife Jackie, his mother Helen, who lives just down the street from him, his son Tyler, his daughter-in-law Amber, and his grandson Wynn.

He is also past-president of the Tennessee Trial Judges Association and has served in various capacities in the TJC, including as treasurer and as a member of the executive committee. He is pleased to note that when he takes over as president of the TJC, he will be one of three West Tennesseans to currently hold the top leadership position of a major legal organization in the state, joining Tennessee Trial Judges Association President Tony Childress and newly-elected Tennessee Bar Association President Michelle Greenway Sellers.

He wants all Tennesseans and all members of the TJC to know that he is forever grateful for the trust they have put in him.

“Public service has been a tremendous pleasure for me,” he said. “I am here serving only because the people allow me. I am taking this position of president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference only because the membership allowed me to do that. I am here only because they allow me to do the job.”