By Ann Cipperly
Opelika lost one of its hometown stars with the passing of Clement Clay “Bo” Torbert Jr. June 2. While Torbert had a distinguished career as an attorney, Legislator, State Senator and Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he always treasured his Opelika roots. Whatever opportunities came along, Torbert refused to move from Opelika, whether it was for a state office in Montgomery or as a member of a prominent law firm in Birmingham.
Born in Opelika in 1929, Torbert’s best childhood memories were at the family farm in Society Hill. He enjoyed spending summer days with his parents, Clement C. and Lynda Meadows Torbert, at a lake in the country. The lake was named Shutome, after the Samford, Shealy, Torbert, Hunter and Meadows families who owned it.
Torbert attended public schools in Opelika and was active in sports, playing football, and was captain of the basketball team. He was also in ROTC.
While attending a dance in Opelika at age 16, he met Gene Hurt of Auburn, who attended the dance with his best friend, Mack Taylor.
Bo and Gene dated for several years. After he attended the Naval Academy for 18 months and graduated from Auburn University in 1951, they married on May 2, 1952.
After the Torberts wed, he served in the Air Force, attaining the rank of captain.
While still in the service, Torbert studied law at the University of Maryland for 18 months. He graduated from the University of Alabama Law School in 1954 and moved his family back to Opelika.
At first, Torbert went into law practice with William L. Dickinson until Dickinson became involved in politics and moved to Montgomery. Torbert then joined Yetta Samford, forming the law firm Samford and Torbert.
In 1958 both Torbert and Samford ran for the Legislature and won. Torbert would later say it was an error for two young lawyers, as they both spent too much time in Montgomery and not enough time practicing law.
As a representative from Lee County, Torbert was selected in 1959 as “the most outstanding freshman legislator” by the Capitol Press Corps.
Torbert was elected to the State Senate in 1966 and elected again in 1974. In 1969, he was selected “most effective senator” by the Capitol Press Corps. Torbert served as chairman of numerous committees.
He became active in 1969 supporting legislation having to do with Alabama courts.
In 1976, Torbert was elected as the 25th Chief Justice of Alabama. He began serving in January 1977. After taking office, Torbert said, “It was my duty to put into effect the Howell Heflin constitution amendment that reformed the Alabama court system, which I had sponsored as a state senator.”
In 1982 he was reelected without opposition to the position for a second term.
During his tenure as Chief Justice, he smoothed out the rough edges of Heflin’s work in implementing the Judicial Article. The new court system in Alabama received accolades across the nation.
Torbert was active in national affairs with respect to state court systems. He was appointed by President Reagan to serve as chairman of the first Board of Directors of the State Justice Institute and elected chairman of the Board of Directors for the National Center for State Courts.
While most people elected or appointed to a high state office move to Montgomery, Torbert opted not to move. He traveled back and forth from Opelika to Montgomery.
When the judicial building in Montgomery was in dire need of improvements, he obtained legislative approval for a bond issue to build the new judicial building. The new structure is named the Heflin-Torbert Judicial Building.
Torbert served as chairman of the National Association of State Chief Justices, among other national associations.
The Torberts traveled extensively nationally and internationally, including attending conferences in London to observe the British legal system and a visit to the Supreme Court of Germany.
The Torberts spent time traveling with Chief Justice Warren Burger and Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
One interesting trip was with Congressman Dickinson, Torbert’s first law partner.
The Congressman, who was the ranking minority leader on the armed forces committee, invited the Torberts to fly on Air Force One to Singapore for the far eastern air show.
Torbert did not seek reelection in 1988 but returned to private practice the following year. In 1990, he joined a prominent Birmingham law firm named Maynard, Cooper and Gale as its resident partner in the Montgomery office.
After joining the firm, he was asked to represent a large national company. It would have required that he move to Birmingham for the major case. He turned down the opportunity, saying, “Sorry, I am not going to move to Birmingham.”
Torbert served as chairman on many national and state committees during his career. He received a vast number of awards and honors. Honors include: Distinguished Service Award for the National Center for State Courts and American Judges Association. He was elected to the Alabama Academy of Honor and received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.
Torbert held the Leslie S. Wright Chair of Law at Samford University and Cumberland School of Law as well as the John Sparkman Chair of Law at the University of Alabama School of Law.
He was awarded honorary Doctor of Law degrees by Troy State University and Tuskegee University.
The Torberts have three children, Dixie Torbert Alton, Shealy Torbert Cook and Clay Torbert. They have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
In retirement, the Torberts enjoyed relaxing days in their 1940s home along the azalea trail in Opelika. Over the years, the Torberts renovated and expanded the house that was once home of Torbert’s aunt and uncle, the C.S. Shealys.
Torbert had an interest in family history and studied in depth the history of the old Federal Road traveled by his pioneer ancestors, who settled in the Society Hill community in the early 1830s.
His grandfather, Clement Clay Torbert, moved to Opelika and built the Clement Hotel in downtown where the Museum of East Alabama is located. He died at an early age in the flu epidemic of 1916.
While Bo Torbert always wanted to live in Opelika where his heart remained since childhood, his distinguished service not only benefited the people of Lee County but also the entire state of Alabama.