Honoring Our Outgoing Chief Judge - Part I

As we bid farewell to retiring Chief Judge Brasher, Judge Richardson sat down with him on a clear early fall day, with the gold dome of the Capitol in the background of his chambers, to chat about his early career and long history in public service. A fascinating interview spanning the many years they've known each other.  

Judge Richardson has known the Chief Judge since she herself began her legal career, having interned with him at the Attorney General’s office, and upon special request, having been sworn in by him the day she became an attorney.

We thought it fitting that she be the one to interview someone who has been her mentor and friend these many years, and with whom she’s had the privilege to serve alongside on the bench in more recent times.

Starting with the early beginnings of his education, Judge Richardson noted that Judge Brasher attended Furman University, majoring in political science.

Q: What was your motivation to go to law school?

A: Growing up, my father always told us that if you have a profession, then you’ll never want for work. While my two older brothers became an engineer and the other in business, I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a professional, am my generation was influenced by popular media the archetypes of lawyers, I always thought it would be an interesting profession to choose. Life has a way of helping you make choices, and one of them for me was that I was never very good at math. I’d love to say that it was all Atticus Finch that drew me to the law, but it was probably my own deficiencies that helped me go that way.

Q: When you were younger, were there experiences or influences that made you want to go into public service?

A: My mom was always involved in public service of some kind, always volunteering and active in the community. I saw that as a way to serve, to make things better. I was encouraged that was an obligation we had, to do our best, to use our talents that we’re given to make things better. It was a strong influence on me. I also saw public as a reliable way to get good experience; as I grew, I realized that in public service you get to do a lot of things you might not get to do otherwise.

Noting Judge Brasher’s long career in public service, Judge Richardson inquired about other jobs he may have wanted to do.

Q: Your career has always been in public service, from working as an Assistant D.A., to the AG’s office, to then serving on the bench. Did you ever consider going into the private sector?

A: I think any lawyer, when you reach an inflection point in your career, you think, what else is there for me to do? What other avenues can I pursue? Being a trial and appellate lawyer, I saw that as an opportunity to leverage my experience in some way. It was around that time where I had a series of relatively high-profile cases, that I guess got me noticed, and I began thinking about all the times around the state I had appeared in different courts, around 130, so I had a lot of opportunities to observe how judges handle their courts in different places. I said if I ever got a chance to do this job, I will do it this way, or not do it in a certain way. And so, the combination of those things influenced my decision to pursue a position on the bench, and that was really where I diverges from going into private practice.

Judge Richardson was a young law school intern when she first worked with Judge Brasher at the Attorney General’s office, where he served under AG’s Bowers and Baker.

Q: What were some of the most impactful memories that you have from your tenure there?

A: It was a great place to practice because it’s the law firm in the state that does every type of law besides criminal defense. I got be involved in things that I would never have been had I not been there, some more stressful, and difficult than others, but all very interesting. Some of the things that stand out is that I got to appear at the U.S. Supreme Court. I dealt with the Tristate Crematory case, when all the bodies were discovered at the crematory site in northwest GA, where I held video screenings about the excavations for lawyers who were representing the funeral homes. I also dealt with the G8 Summit at Sea Island. All unusual but interesting.

Judge Richardson noted that she distinctly remembers the G8 Summit in 2004, as that was the summer she interned for him and worked on some projects surrounding that event. She noted that as a young law student, the experience was a bit terrifying, and didn’t grasp quite was happening. She was curious what the experience was like for him back then. Judge Brasher thought it must have showed her the broad sweep that government service can have, especially when “you’re at the place that’s supposed to give advice to the people that do difficult things and make difficult decisions.” He went on to explain that this was really what the job during that summit was, and that led to planning, setting up command structures, dealing with liability issues, and trying to figure out how things would occur given that large protests had occurred at G7 and G8 summits in Europe and the western U.S. states. Noting that while they didn’t want to have everything closed down, he also recognized that protests are a “constitutional exercise of people’s First Amendment rights” and they needed to also keep everyone safe. So the job at the G8 Summit was twofold, one side was planning and giving real-time advice, and the other was training over 6,000 law enforcement officers. Judge Brasher went on to say that he was in the car with the colonel of the state patrol when the protests were occurring, and that working to keep things from getting out of hand, and having conversations, that despite some tense times, it all worked out. He also got to meet then President George W. Bush and former Attorney General Condoleezza Rice when they toured the command center.

Q: Tell me about the time you argued before the United States Supreme Court?

A: In 1999, I got a call from William Suter, the clerk at the time of the Court, telling me I had been granted certiorari in my case of an inmate who have been twice convicted of murder, paroled the first time, then convicted again. It took about 5 minutes after I hung up for that to sink in. I argued the case on January 11, 2000, which is where I got that picture that is hanging up behind me.

Judge Richardson noted “and the famous quill.” Judge Brasher reflected that it was all an accident of history, that picture. That his wife and parents got to watch him argue the case, and that he ended up sitting beside then Senator Joe Biden, who had sponsored the Violence Against Women Act, the case before his. “It was kind of interesting history, back through the lens of time, to see something like that.” After the first case was heard, he made maybe 17 to 18 seconds into his prepared 10 minutes of discussion, when the questions from the Justices began.

Q: Do you remember who asked you the first question?

A: I believe it was Justice Kennedy. They didn’t stop for 28 minutes. Then the other side made their arguments, and then I made mine, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ran out the clock on me by asking me a procedural question. We won 6-3, and that was my great foray into the highest peak of oral argument in appellate courts, quite an interesting time.

Q: Was it in the back of your mind, that you might like to be on the bench one day, or is that something that evolved for you?

A: It evolved. I knew enough about what I didn’t know…it wasn’t until I had those experiences that I said I could do this job because I felt I had learned enough, that if I got the chance, I would want to handle things in a certain way that serves the institution and justice a little better. I think where the desire to be a judge was ignited was when all these things converged, enough notice, enough experience, enough thoughts about how I would do it, all came together.

After going through the process of seeking a judicial appointment a number of times, on February 28th of 2006, Judge Brasher took his seat on the bench for Superior Court of Fulton County.

Q: Do you recall those early days?

A: I do, I felt like the dog that caught the car, like what was I supposed to do with this, now what? My goal was to talk to all the judges, to get their thoughts and see what works and what doesn’t. Most of the people who came to this bench were steeped in Fulton County practice, and I was not.

Judge Brasher went on to reminisce that when he joined the bench, he had 18 colleagues and he previously had had 9 of them reversed on appeal when he was a litigator. However Judge Brasher never felt that his colleagues begrudged that, just like he wouldn’t begrudge anyone either. His goal was “to learn how to take off the advocate hat and put on the neutral hat,” which was where his questions to his fellow judges centered around when he first started. Judge Brasher stated, “Everyone’s got to do this job their own way and has to make their own way through it.” He further noted that his appellate experience helped with knowing where the land mines were and attempting to avoid them. He put all of his experience together to develop his own style, centered around the things he’d learned, and that to “try and be courteous to everyone, always start your day in court with a smile on your face and just make sure that people get an opportunity to be heard.”

“I’ve always joked that, as a judge, our approval rating tops at 50%, and it’s usually much less than that. But the way in which people go through the process often determines whether they think it’s fair; and ultimately, we’ve got to be mindful of that as Judges.”

With Judge Brasher having served in various positions of the Fulton County Superior Court – the general civil and criminal division, the family division, and as Chief Judge -- Judge Richardson asked if he had any perspective he’d like to share about the different roles and his experiences in them. Judge Brasher explained how unique this particular bench is, that it’s one of the only ones where every judge, as equals, gets to choose if they’re going to go into a different division.  He noted the size of the Fulton County Superior Court and its complexity in operations. He went on to explain that he moved into the family division after trying two death penalty cases in three years and was ready to do something different due to the extreme difficulty and all-consuming nature of such cases. Even though some people thought he was crazy to move into the family division, he enjoyed it.  Judge Brasher commended his staff for doing an amazing job, stating “They were committed to it, and interested and engaged, and so that was a real benefit.” Judge Brasher said that he found his time on the family bench “something of a salve for my need to seeing something other than a lot of brokenness.” And he noted, even though you do see brokenness in the family division, sometimes you get a chance to make it better.  He said, “Especially in cases that involved children, you get a chance to get a family out of a ditch and get them going in the right direction; maybe to get some help for people, especially for children, if they need it.” In the family division “there’s more opportunities to fix brokenness than just to punish it, which is what we do here in criminal court.”  He went on to explain that he owes a debt of gratitude to the family bar because he’s not sure he would have stayed on the bench this long with that different perspective.

When Judge Brasher was elected as Chief Judge, he began on February 1, 2020, right before Covid-19 hit. By late February it was really on the court’s radar and around then is when they began taking jurors temperatures once or twice a week. He saw the jurors as the biggest vulnerability because the role the court played in bringing people from different parts of the county together in a place they would normally not be and compelling them to do so. So, he began to take note of how people were reacting, noting that at first, they had the same quiet resignation as was common for jury duty, but before long you began to see more masks and more people looking around furtively if anyone coughed.

“Chris is a jurist of impeccable intellect and common sense.  No matter the circumstance, he always has a smile on his face and makes everyone feel welcome. As our Chief Judge, along with our civil and criminal justice partners, he shepherded our court through the pandemic in a calm manner.”                         

-Judge Glanville 

In the first week of March, after communicating with Chief Justice Melton and other justices of the Georgia Supreme Court, it became clear that they needed to take some steps. And thus began his first few months as Chief Judge in the midst of a large international health crisis that stretches even into today, as the court still has a mask requirement. The Superior Court of Fulton County issued the first order in the State limiting court operations due to the pandemic, even before the Governor issued his executive order. They did the best they could given the circumstances, and no play book as to handle the situation, but that their “goal was to not stop the critical functions of the criminal justice system.” While crime went down, it did not go away and Judge Brasher knew we still needed to have the court functioning.

So how did he manage still doing the work the court needed to do, while pivoting with the crisis at hand? Afterall, people were still getting arrested, we still had to be able to do first appearances, handle jail traffic, protective orders for people in danger. The first thing they did was purchase fifty Zoom licenses within a week of order (we’re now at over 500) and started figuring out how to utilize technology to keep things moving. While there were fits and starts, he said there were “two things I held in primacy, first, there are things we must do, because we can’t fail, the criminal justice system cannot fail society in that way. And the second was, we have to be mindful of using our compulsory attendance power in a way that’s not responsible.” He noted that the conversation about making masks at court voluntary is going to happen, but that he did not roll it back right away as having to reinstitute it would have undermined our credibility. “There was a lot of resolve to keep going as best we could and not try to make things worse.” He things some of the technological changes made during Covid perhaps have been institutionalized, and noted we were the only county that did virtual jury selection…though the Supreme Court is taking that away most likely. But the Superior Court of Fulton County was ahead of the leading edge, “at the avant-garde of what was happening."

Q: Were there any goals you had as the incoming Chief Judge that you weren’t able to achieve because of the Covid-19 Crisis?

A: I’d love to tell you that I can recount what all those goals were, but they were overtaken by events very quickly. I had 10 or 12 concerns that needed to be dealt with. I think the reality of a situation like what we’ve been through is that it’s made our bench a little closer. Having an external existential threat, there’s nothing like having that to draw people closer together and to rely on each other.  I think we all recognized that different people have different fears, and they’re all valid. Different people have different priorities, and they’re all valid. Just the reality that we needed to keep going, I’m proud of how our court kept going through this. And just as with some of the improvements from a technology and process standpoint we gained, that we should not let go of, I hope the same is true of the relationships that we have. I think people pulling together and relying on each other is an extremely important thing.

Part II of this Interview Coming Soon