John Sognier: War Hero, Judge, Mentor, Friend
Former Court of Appeals judge is praised after his death at 93 in Savannah
John W. Sognier flew missions as a fighter pilot in World War II. He practiced law and was a state legislator. He went on to be chief judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals, and after leaving the court, he picked up another degree.
But Sognier, who died Sept. 6 at the age of 93, is perhaps best known in the legal community for a minor indignity: being booted from the bench at the polls. The Savannah native's 1992 defeat remains the only time in recent memory that an incumbent Georgia appellate court judge has been challenged successfully at the ballot box.
He was not embroiled in any great scandal, and his opponent, G. Alan Blackburn, didn't take issue with his decisions. Blackburn just pointed out that, under the state's retirement rules, Sognier wouldn't be able to serve his full term if re-elected. Blackburn rode a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment to victory. It was an anticlimactic end to a storied career.
Born to two Savannah natives, Joseph Sognier and Viola Trott Sognier, John Sognier graduated from Savannah High School. He attended Columbus University Law School at what's now the Catholic University of America in Washington.
According to his official court biography, Sognier served in the military in World War II before becoming admitted to the Georgia Bar in 1946. Transferring from the Infantry to the Air Force, Sognier flew 59 missions in the European Theater and later commanded a fighter squadron in India-Burma.
Sognier served on recall during the Korean War. He received several Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. A son, John Sognier Jr., later was killed in action in Vietnam in 1967, according to the judge's death notice.
After World War II, Sognier began practice with the Savannah firm of Kennedy, Jenkins and Oliver. Sognier had married Josephine Kennedy, and her father, John Groover Kennedy, was senior partner at the firm and became mayor of Savannah in 1947. The firm became Kennedy and Sognier in 1948, and Sognier remained there until his appointment to the bench in 1980.
Meanwhile, Sognier became active in local politics, serving a stint in the state Legislature, then as Chatham County registrar and county attorney. Sognier was a Democrat, although "he leaned more in the other direction in his later years," said Loretto Sognier, the judge's widow, whom he married after he and Josephine divorced.
Governor George Busbee appointed him to the Court of Appeals. At a 1992 event marking Sognier's departure from the court, Busbee recalled that his interview of Sognier was unique. "Right up front, he said, 'Governor, I want to tell you,' he said, 'I didn't vote for you when you ran.'" (Busbee's account didn't make clear if he was referring to his 1974 Democratic primary race with former governor Lester Maddox, his subsequent general election defeat of Macon mayor Ronnie Thompson or his 1978 re-election over Rodney Cook.)
"He told me who he voted for, and I thought maybe the Judicial Nominating Commission had more sense than I thought they did in selecting a man that had that discretion," Busbee continued. "But I told him, I said, you know that's not one of the criteria that they use anymore. He said, 'But if you run again, I will [vote for you].'"