Swimming Upstream

UGA swimmer turned attorney Emmet Bondurant goes after the big ones
Emmet Bondurant

Talk about the All-American boy. Meet Emmet Jopling Bondurant, II, nationally renowned attorney at law. He’s Jack Armstrong, the miracle Mets and the incredible Jets all rolled into one. He beat The Coca-Cola Co. in a lawsuit brought by Coca-Cola Bottlers and defeated Atlanta’s most prestigious law firm, King and Spalding, in a sex discrimination suit.

In 1960, he won a U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering the state of Georgia to conform its congressional districts to the one-man, one vote rule (Wesberry vs. Sanders). He successfully defended eight individuals and Wyle Laboratories, Inc. in a lawsuit filed against them by Avnet, Inc., the nation’s largest electronics distributor.

It would not have taken a clairvoyant to predict what this man was going to achieve. At Athens High School, he played shortstop on the baseball team, headed the student council and was president of his senior class. In the summers, when he was not attending the Athens YMCA camp, he was loading and unloading trucks at his father’s lumber company.

You name it, at the University of Georgia Bondurant did it. He was captain of the swimming team, despite the fact that he only swam at home meets. He refused to travel to the away meets because he did not want to miss classes or time he could be spending in the law library.

He was chairman of the university student council, a member of Sphinx, chief justice of the Law School Honor Court, president of the law school advisory council and assistant editor-in-chief, student editorial board of the Georgia State Bar Journal. He was Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, Phi Eta Sigma and the top man in his law school class three consecutive years.

He is a cum laude graduate of the University of Georgia and a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Georgia Law School. He received an LLM from Harvard Law School.

He has run the Boston Marathon, the New York Marathon and more Atlanta marathons and Peachtree Road Races than he can remember. Last year he was named one of the “Top 10 Lawyers in America” by the National Law Journal.

Today Bondurant, 65, has no retirement plans. He lives in Atlanta with his wife, Jane Fahey, a former attorney herself and now minister at the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Buckhead. The Bondurants’ home, also in Buckhead, is a sprawling contemporary on two acres of wooded lot. They have five grown children.

Typical of Bondurant’s courage and commitment is the way we conducted the telephone interview for this column. He had just arrived home from Piedmont Hospital after undergoing six hours of back surgery. I suggested we postpone the interview. He said, “Why? I am up to it if you are.” So, for his first two hours at home, he answered questions. Pain or no pain, Bondurant knows only one way — full speed ahead.

A man of service? His contributions are enormous. Some of the more notable positions he has held are counsel and trustee to the Atlanta Commission on Crime and Juvenile Delinquency, vice president and director of Good Government Atlanta, Board of Management of the Northside YMCA, director and president of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, chairman of the Atlanta City Charter Commission, co-chairman of the committee for Sensible Rapid Transit, director of Research Atlanta, president of the University of Georgia Law School Association and member of the UGA Law School Board of Visitors.

The city of Atlanta had been without a charter for 100 years when Bondurant took on the chairmanship of the Atlanta Charter Commission.

Recalls Charles Wittenstein, who was executive director of the commission, “We never would have got the job done without Emmet. His dedication in time, his encouragement of all commission members, his commitment, his sheer enthusiasm was an inspiration to all of us. The man was indispensable.”

Bondurant is the senior partner of the litigation firm of Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore. What started out as a seven-man firm has grown to a 25-man firm. He often represents smaller companies against larger ones, individuals against corporations, corporate challengers against industry leaders.

“If you are afraid to represent underdogs in litigation, you do not belong in the legal profession,” Bondurant says. “We think even the rich and arrogant deserved to be sued.”

He was a mere lad of 27 when he did something most lawyers only dream of: he won a landmark case before the U. S. Supreme Court. That was Wesberry vs. Sanders, which forced the state of Georgia to redraw its congressional district lines to accurately reflect the state’s population in keeping with the then novel “one person, one vote,” legal principle. The verdict drastically shifted the balance of political power in Georgia from rural areas to the state’s emerging urban centers.

Says his office manager Marjorie Stansel, who assists him on some of his cases, “He never works on a case unless he knows everything about it. He reads the documents, takes the depositions and researches every aspect of the case. During a trial he is always respectful of the court, even when the judge rules against him. It is always ‘If the court please’ and ‘Thank you, your honor.'”

“Opposing counsel often objects to his smiling and thanking the judge but the jury only remembers a gracious gentleman, calm, cool and well-prepared.”

Bondurant learned his manners and his bulldog tenacity from his parents, the late John and Mary Bondurant. He also learned the meaning of hard work.

“According to the effort is the reward,” his dad used to say. He got the message early. Recalls his older sister, Mary Warren, “Daddy had a deal with Emmet. If Emmet earned an A in school, dad rewarded him with a $5 bill. Emmet earned so many A’s that dad had to put in overtime at the office.”

Scholastics always came first, sports second. But it was on the advice of one of his swimming coaches, Irwin “Yutch” Stolz, a future Georgia Court of Appeals judge, that Bondurant entered law school. Three times he led his Bulldog swimming team to a second place finish in the Southeastern Conference championships but that paled in comparison to what he did in law school.

He was the top graduate in law school and the first UGA student to be offered a Court of Appeals clerkship with Judge Clement Haynsworth on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the fourth circuit in Greenville, S.C.

The year was 1960. The civil rights movement was about to burst upon a reluctant south. It was in this crucible that Bondurant’s social conscience was shaped. He made a firm decision that representing the underdog was to be his way of life.

Haynsworth was so impressed with Bondurant’s commitment and attention to detail that he helped Bondurant land a scholarship to Harvard. It was at Harvard that he earned his master’s degree in constitutional law and wrote a timely thesis addressing the issue of mounting a constitutional attack on the Georgia county unit system that would lay the groundwork for his first appearance before the U. S. Supreme Court.

When Bondurant returned to Atlanta, he worked as an associate for what was then called Kilpatrick, Cody, one of the city’s largest firms. He earned $500 a month. Today that might buy you one hour of his time.

Bondurant has been uncompromising in his belief that every human being is entitled to fair treatment, regardless of his stature. The only private club he belongs to is the Commerce Club, which is non-discriminatory.

For 150 years the Bondurant family has stuck to a moral code of the highest integrity and no one has adhered more to that code than Emmet Jopling Bondurant, II.

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