Former state Rep. E. Wycliffe “Wyc” Orr Sr. died at age 67 on Wednesday.
The outspoken Gainesville attorney practiced civil law for more than four decades, but his greatest impact may have been felt in the criminal legal realm.
“I don’t know of anybody who has spent more time volunteering his services to improving the legal system, and in particular all the work he did on behalf of creating the public defender system and fighting to make sure it was adequately funded,” said Hammond Law, a Gainesville municipal judge. “He didn’t get any money for that, or any real praise for that at the time.”
“He was not afraid to fight for unpopular causes.”
Orr was one of the leaders in the statewide push to create a system of public defense offices, administered by the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, of which he was a charter member. Previously, private attorneys handled all cases.
And Orr didn’t stop fighting for the system after its 2003 creation, Law said.
“One of the biggest fears people had when they went to the statewide public defender system is that it would not be adequately funded and it would not have been as well funded as it is if not for Wyc’s nonstop effort to ensure that it would be a strong system,” Law said.
Orr received the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southern Center for Human Rights on May 13 for those efforts and others at the organization’s annual Justice Taking Root benefit reception at the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta.
Gainesville attorney Julius Hulsey said he counted Orr as a “dear friend” and a man who wasn’t afraid to articulate hard truths.
“Wyc’s heart was always in the right place,” he said. “His ethics were superb, and oftentimes he might tell you things that maybe you didn’t want to hear, but you knew deep down he was right on some social issues.”
Chief Public Defender Brad Morris, another of Orr’s close friends and legal colleagues, said he was an idealist.
“He was a man who was driven by his ideals,” Morris said. “He would give himself the time to help people who are less fortunate.”
Orr drew praise for more than mere advocacy; he was a sharp legal mind who had shown early promise when he graduated first in his class from the University of Tennessee.
“He was smart as any lawyer in the circuit,” Law said; Hulsey said Gainesville had lost one of its best attorneys; Morris said Orr was “very much a perfectionist.”
And he was meticulous in his scholarship, Morris said. A pastime was visiting historical sites, including the birthplace of the Constitution.
“He was very much a scholar. He read lots of philosophy, read lots of books, and he was very interested in going to historically significant places,” Morris said.
For all his interest in the rights of criminal defendants, Orr overwhelmingly practiced in civil law.
“That was always part of his beauty,” said Chief Assistant Public Defender Nicki Vaughan. “He was a white-collar lawyer. He did nonindigent cases.”
But he felt very strongly that every criminal defendant ought to be represented by a competent attorney, Morris said.
“He was interested in the fairness, and the Constitution,” he said. “He spent lots of time on seemingly lost causes, all based on a sense of fairness and ideals.”
Indeed, Orr did lose many battles during his two terms in the state legislature from 1989-1993. He also ran an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Congress in 1992, a seat later won by Gov. Nathan Deal, after running a campaign that refused political action committee donations.
But he remained a steadfast optimist with “boundless energy,” Morris said, always trying new things. And for all his hard work and time he devoted to causes, he always found time to help another person.
“He cared about people, and cared about people beyond his own profession,” Morris said. “He’s just really a fine person.”
Orr was also a great writer, Morris said, and a frequent essayist and contributor to publications. He was also a weekly radio contributor at one point, a role that Hulsey summarized.
“In that commentary, Wyc always tried to prod our conscience to do the right thing, and that prodding over a period of time caused our entire community to be a better place to live,” Hulsey said.
Even when Orr was less popular for his progressive views, he was undeterred, Vaughan said.
“He was an extremely passionate advocate and it did create a lot of enemies, but that didn’t seem to hinder him or slow him down,” she said.
Orr met his wife of 47 years, Lyn Harden Orr, in high school, Morris said.
“He and his wife had one of the best marriages and families I’ve ever known,” he said.
Orr had four grandchildren from two children; daughter Kris Brown, a law partner at Orr & Brown LLP, and son E. Wycliffe “Cliff” Orr Jr., an investment manager in Atlanta.
In addition to his contribution to the statewide public defender’s system, Orr served in many capacities in the community: he was past president of the Hall County Unit of the American Cancer Society, co-founder and first president of the Chattahoochee American Inn of Court (renamed in 2013 as the E. Wycliffe Orr, Sr. American Inn of Court) and past president of the Gainesville-Northeastern Circuit Bar Association.
The Tifton native and Auburn University graduate also served in then-West Germany as a captain in the United States Army Judge Advocate General Corps from 1971-1974.