Wadie Thomas Jr. Award Honors Recently Retired Judge 3/6/18 03/06/18 12:20:48 PM
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Oluseyi “Seyi” Otlowalafe, president of the Black Law Students Association, left, presents Judge Wadie Thomas Jr. with the Pittman Award.
Wadie Thomas Jr.
Award Honors Recently Retired Judge
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
The retirement parties celebrating the distinguished career of Judge Wadie Thomas Jr. of the Separate Douglas County Juvenile Court were not the end of the accolades.
He expected that January 31, 2018, would mark the end of his public persona after 22 years on the bench. But on February 23, he received the Pittman Award 2018 at Creighton University School of Law. Then on February 27, the Douglas County Board of Commissioners honored Thomas during their weekly meeting.
For a man who would rather fly under the radar, it was a humbling period.
The Pittman Award, honoring 70 years of African-American graduates of the Creighton University School of Law, was bestowed on Thomas as one “who possesses the same qualities of excellence, perseverance and dedication that made Judge Pittman such a truly outstanding role model for all law students and lawyers.” Thomas was the 13th recipient since 1998, “a long and distinguished list,” Interim Dean Michael Kelley noted. After an introduction by Raneta Mack, professor of law and moderator for the Black Law Students Association, who sponsor the event, Thomas addressed the crowd.
“I made the comment a few weeks ago, that when judges come on the bench, a lot of people show up, but when you leave and they show up, as about 300 did at a party a few weeks ago … when they honor you that way you like to fool yourself into thinking you did something right. … For one, I have Creighton to thank for a quality legal education,” he said.
“Receiving this award holds special significance for me,” Thomas continued. “I practiced before Judge Pittman for a few years when I was a young lawyer. One of the things I learned from her was about [judicial] temperament. I never saw her upset. Never saw her raise her voice. It gave me something to strive for, in terms of how you treat people. Just because you have the power and authority of a judge does not mean you should abuse it. I always try to conduct myself in that fashion,” he said.
“I also understood that lawyers have a job to do. In particular, defense lawyers have to play the hand they are dealt. In order to do your job, you probably say some things you don’t even believe in, but if you don’t, you get sued by your client. I always understood that. I practiced law for 15 years before I went on the bench.
“I always wanted to treat people with respect.”
When Thomas was up for retention in 2016, he received one of the highest retention ratings – 95.9 percent – in the Juvenile Court. He scored in the top 20 percentile in all categories, including “temperament.”
After attending Alabama State University on a football scholarship and receiving a degree in criminal justice, he earned his J.D. at Creighton School of Law. He also served in the U.S. Army from 1972 to 1975. Mack noted that after “a brief flirtation with a career as an FBI agent,” was in private practice from 1980 until he was appointed a judge by Gov. Ben Nelson in 1995. He served for more than 15 years on the Nebraska Judicial Qualifications Commission.
In 2003, the Nebraska Supreme Court honored Thomas as a “Distinguished Judge for Community Leadership.” He also received the African-American Leadership Award in Government from the Urban League of Nebraska in June 2017.
Thomas was born and raised in Montgomery, Ala., a place that was rife with challenges for African-American young men. “I grew up in an environment where getting an education could have gone either way. I was blessed and lucky to have parents that directed me a certain way. I was blessed to have a positive environment with the coaches that I played for. My focus became something other than just running the streets and getting into trouble.
“I saw a lot of young men and women here in my court [who went the other direction.] I understand those external forces can pull on you a lot stronger. I always thought my responsibility was to try to redirect them.”
For that reason, he also presided over a family drug court in Douglas County, one of several successful alternative courts. “You do it for the parents. There, you can error on the side of giving them a break.
“I always tried to conduct myself in a manner that gives people the benefit of the doubt. That was what the job was all about.”