The Fish House Gang is a shadowy ad hoc group whose unsworn members consume mass quantities of fried food, but aren’t expected to pay dues and aren’t required to sit through mind-altering speeches and programs that are guaranteed to induce sleep or coma.
In other words, it’s not a civic club.
For nearly 70 years, The Fish House Gang has quietly assembled in local eating establishments that are equipped with deep fryers and a source for fresh catfish and cooking oil. The group does not have an official roster, and those who attend must be invited. The primary requirement for anyone in attendance is that you must not tell your server that you want your fish blackened, baked or broiled.
Just when you think this historic group has gone away — a victim of a membership getting too old to eat fried food — there it is again, creeping back into the headlines, seven years after the death of its godfather, that unforgettable hanging judge, John Henry Land.
The case to which it was connected on Tuesday has nothing to do with a noose or a sentence of death. It is a civil case filed in federal court by three Aflac shareholders who alleged that executives and board members of the Columbus insurance giant violated the Securities Exchange Act and “received unjust enrichment.”
The lawsuit was dismissed last week by Chief U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land who dealt with the plaintiffs request that he step aside because of family relationships with Aflac and his family’s life-long affiliation with the infamous Fish House Gang. Clay Land has been on the federal bench since 2001 and he is the great nephew of the late Superior Court Judge John H. Land, who died in 2011.
The suit was originally filed last December in the Southern District of New York by Aflac shareholders Martin Conroy, Gerald McCarthy and Louis Varela. The insurance company asked for the suit to be transferred to Georgia’s Middle District in January.
In his written dismissal, Land did not recuse himself and called the request to do so from New York City attorney Dimitry Joffee a “careless suggestion.” Land also shared the colorful history of the Fish House Gang in terms that bounced back and forth from the language of the court to down-home descriptions of a group of around 200 invitees that gathers “three or four times a year to enjoy fried fish, French fries, hushpuppies, coleslaw and each other’s company.”
The idea of hushpuppies and coleslaw would be totally foreign to plaintiffs and lawyers from Manhattan and so would supper in an unadorned restaurant where the tables aren’t covered with cloth and the owner doesn’t have a liquor license.
The Fish House Gang is a carryover from a past where the judiciary, law enforcement and commissioners in six small Georgia counties around Columbus once felt led to kiss the ring of Judge John Land.
As one elected described the early group, it was a bunch of people “that liked to dabble in politics so they decided to dabble together.”
Though there was never a formal agenda, somehow candidates running for statewide office managed to show up on the right night at the right hour.
The story was told of a former mayor of Columbus who on hearing of a meeting coming up asked Land if that were so.
“Yes, but you’re not invited.”
When John Land was in his political prime, the crowd might approach 200. They first met at Pritchett’s Fish Camp and later moved to Rose Hill Seafood. And once a meeting began, there was no doubt who the hub of the wheel was. A story told by retired Ledger-Enquirer reporter Jim Houston shows that power.
Houston was the paper’s main court reporter for many years so he dealt with the judge during times when Land and the newspaper were at war. Through it all, the two of them kept an air of rare professionalism. No one in the news business had ever infiltrated that secret chamber but without warning Land asked Houston if he would like to be his guest at one of the gang’s meetings — on that very night.
Many people in that room recognized Houston but nothing was said. It was time to eat and diners at Pritchett’s piled their plates high with catfish and the fixings. During the meal, a man who had probably poured too many drinks, stood up and pointed a finger at Houston.
“What’s that reporter doing here? he asked a little too loudly.
Judge Land just smiled. “He’s my guest. Any more questions?”
There were none.
In today’s political climate, one official or judge would never grow so influential. John Land came out of a generation when there was one race, one gender and one party. Power was vested in the hands of white male Democrats and the judge controlled that local machine.
John Land stayed on the bench in Columbus for 24 years, long enough to rethink his core beliefs and long enough to see a time when not that many people wanted to eat his fried fish.
Without intending to be, he became a transitional figure instead of a throwback to an era when the country boys and the city folks didn’t get along.
The hardcore Democrat lived long enough to see four of his relatives: City council member Jack Land, state senator Ted Land and federal judge Clay Land serve as Republicans. He also would be proud to know that Ben Land — another of his great nephews — now sits on the same Superior Court bench that he once served.
Though The Fish House Gang still meets several times a year, nothing is the way it was. Its influence from the past has passed, and had nothing to do with the district court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit last week.
“Neither fish nor family disqualifies the undersigned from presiding over this action,” Clay Land wrote.