Alabama Academy of Honor

John C. Godbold

The following biographical sketch was compiled at the time of induction into the Academy in 2002 and 2010.

John C. Godbold was born on a farm in rural Alabama in 1920 and was educated in the public schools of Selma. In 1940, he earned his B.S. degree from Auburn University, where he was editor of the school newspaper, The Plainsman. In 1948, he earned his J.D. from Harvard Law School, after serving in the Army in Europe during World War II.

Admitted to the Alabama bar in 1948, John Godbold began practice with Richard T. Rives at Montgomery and became a partner in the firm of Rives and Godbold in 1949. Seventeen years later, in 1966, Judge Godbold was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. His former law firm sent three successive senior partners to the federal bench – Richard T. Rives to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 1951; John C. Godbold to the Fifth in 1966; and Truman M. Hobbs to the Middle District of Alabama in 1980.

For more than a decade, Judge Godbold was active in efforts to divide the Fifth Circuit into two courts. In 1981, with Judge Godbold as Chief Judge, the Fifth Circuit divided into the “new” Fifth and the Eleventh, and Godbold became the first Chief Judge of the Eleventh Circuit – the only person ever to have served as Chief Judge of two circuits.

In 1986, Judge Godbold relinquished his duties as Chief Judge and, soon thereafter, became Director of the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C., the research and training arm of the federal court system. He served at that post for three years, returning to duty on the Eleventh Circuit in March 1990. Also in 1990, he was named Leslie S. Wright Distinguished Professor at Cumberland Law School in Birmingham, a position he still holds.

Each year the Federal Judiciary chooses from its ranks of approximately 1,500 judges a single judge to receive the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award. The selection is made each year by a new committee chaired by a Justice of the Supreme Court. Judge Godbold was chosen for the Devitt Award in 1996.

Judge Godbold was a highly respected leader in the training of Federal jurists and was a long-time exponent of clear and uncluttered writing by lawyers and judges. He was the author of numerous publications and a frequent lecturer to judges and lawyers. His law review piece, Twenty Pages and Twenty Minutes – Effective Advocacy on Appeal, 39 SW.L.J. 801 (1976) (condensed and reprinted in 15 Litigation 3, Spring 1989), is said to be the most widely reprinted law review piece written in the United States and is regularly reprinted as a teaching and reference tool in law schools, bar associations, CLE programs, and law firms. Two other significant writings are The Role of the Constitution in Our Lives, 28 The Cumberland Lawyer, No. 1 (1995); “Lawyer” – a Title of Honor, 29 Cum.L.Rev. No. 2.

Among Judge Godbold’s contributions was the development of the procedure known as “Certification of Issues to State Courts.” Formerly a federal court, faced with applying a rule of state law, might find that the subject had never been ruled on by a state court, or it might be unable to confidently identify and describe the content of the state law. The federal court then had to guess what the state law was. Later in some cases, a state court might find that the federal court’s guess was wrong. Now, the federal court may ask the state Supreme Court to identify the state law if it is settled and if not invite the state court to rule on it. The state Supreme Court will respond, and the federal court will accept and follow that court’s ruling. Judge Godbold placed this commonsense procedure in effect with the Fifth Circuit and a single state and fostered the procedure in other states. Now more than 40 states have procedures for certification of issues of state law.

Judge Godbold was the first recipient of Auburn University’s Alumni Award for Achievement in the Humanities in 1982. He received an L.L.D. from Sanford University in 1981, from Auburn University in 1988, and from Stetson University in 1994.

Judge Godbold was married to the former Betty Showalter; they have four children and nine grandchildren.

Judge Godbold died on December 22, 2009.