Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
Copyright. All rights reserved.

James Newton Garrett (1906-1975)
Friend, Lawyer, & Orator

James Newton Garrett, Sr. (1906-1975) was born in Portsmouth, Virginia. He attended schools in Portsmouth and William & Mary College and was a graduate of University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he earned his law degree in 1932.

Returning home, he settled into his law practice and on October 13, 1934, he married Ruth Marian Pope (1908-2004), a Norfolk native at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, Virginia. They would be blessed with three children.

In 1939 he was asked by the Bar Association to serve out the term of Joe Smith on the Norfolk County Board of Supervisors as a reprsentive from the Deep Creek area Magisterial District. Joe Smith, a popular man, had died in office.

That same year he decided to run for the House of Delegates and was encourage by many close friends to run and he won, serving the Old Dominion for two years. That same year he had a confrontation with Judge A. B. Carney of Norfolk County due to house-cleaning technics which caused a confrontation between both men. Neither one lost his bid for the re-election of the state legislatures.

He was a member of the area's bar association, and was an organizer and first president of the of Chesapeake Bar Association. 

James Garrett was known throughout the state as an annexation lawyer, the best in the state. He represented the county and later the city of Chesapeake in every one of the cases regarding annexation battles against Norfolk, Portsmouth and South Norfolk. He never lost a case!

When Portsmouth took the last bit from Chesapeake’s Western Branch Borough in 1968, Garrett found his Sterling Point Drive home within 10.5 miles annexed by the sister city.

He also represented Henrico, Nansemond and Roanoke counties in suits brought by Richmond, Suffolk and Roanoke.

He served as the court appointed tie-breaker for the county Board of Supervisors in the 1950’s and for the city of Chesapeake from 1964-1966. His reapportionment resulted in the election of an at large nine member city Council.

At the time of his death Garrett was on the executive committee of the state Bar Council.  In addition, he was also a board member of the Chesapeake Hospital Authority and a member of the Merchants & Farmer’s Bank of Portsmouth, VA. As an advocate for classical music, he was an active Board member of the Norfolk Symphony Association.

James Garrett built an enviable reputation for courtroom prowess both as a defense attorney in criminal trials and as an annexation attorney representing Norfolk County and Portsmouth over the years.

In one annexation suit, he delivered a closing argument of such brilliance and articulateness that his fellow attorneys canceled their prepared speeches and rested the case on Mr. Garrett remarks. Moreover, the three judges of the tribunal recessing shortly afterwards came out of their chambers to shake his hand. Despite his efforts, the courts continually awarded county land to the cities, and it was something of an irony that his own home was finally annexed by Portsmouth.

Jimmy Garrett is best remembered in the courtrooms of Tidewater as a hard-working lawyer who had the respect of judges, juries and witnesses. He delighted the court room spectators with his old school tactics. He spoke without notes, and enjoyed his own performance.  His command of the law was rivaled by his command of the English language. As one admirer said, “He could start a sentence and wind it around and around for five minutes, pausing perfectly when he was finished.”

Mr. Garrett commanded similar respect for his courtroom eloquence and incisiveness in criminal cases. He was a true legend in old Norfolk County which became the city of Chesapeake.

As the Virginian-Pilot stated at his death, he was one of the most outstanding lawyers whose contributions to his beloved Norfolk County extended well beyond his profession.

To his daughter-in-law, Nancy Garrett, he was known as Papa Bear. Even in his family life he listened to family members carefully and had a command presence.

There is a story that was told to me by Nancy Garrett of the Eastern Shore, Virginia. She happened to stop by the court one day to see her father-in-law Jim Garrett. As she walked in unexpectilly, lawyers and judges were around signing papers as to the creation of Chesapeake. A check was passed to her for to the city of Portsmouth for Nine million dollars. Nancy passed it onto the next person. As she said later, “I have never held that amount of money in my life.”

James Garrett enriched the lives of so many in the community as well as in his law profession. He was an individual that made a huge difference in the boundary lines of cities here in our Tidewater area.   

* * * * * * * * * *

Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com