By Ed Brock
There was a time when the decisions Gene Lawson made as probate judge of Clayton County essentially didn't amount to a hill of beans.
In 1983 when Lawson was elected to the position he has held since then the probate court in Georgia was considered an inferior court. That meant people who were not satisfied with the court's decision did not have to appeal the case, but rather took it to superior court and the probate judge's decision meant nothing.
"I almost resigned over that," Lawson said.
Instead, Lawson, who announced in a letter to Gov. Sonny Perdue on April 9 that he plans to retire as of July 1, worked to change that. He enlisted the support of legislators like Georgia Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro, and former Rep. Bill Lee to enact legislation making probate court parallel to superior court in counties with a high enough population where the probate judge is as qualified as the superior court judges.
That change soon spread to 10 counties in the metro Atlanta area and beyond.
"And it started here in Clayton County," Lawson said. "If I ever had anything to put on my tombstone ? it'll be the escalation from inferior court to enhanced probate court jurisdiction started in Clayton County."
In his letter Lawson, who is approaching his 65th birthday, said he reluctantly decided to retire in part because of the demands of the job. He has had one five-day vacation in seven years, Lawson wrote.
"I say reluctantly because, despite the demands, I can imagine no more rewarding job," Lawson said.
A graduate of the University of Chattanooga (now the University of Tennessee) and the Woodrow Wilson College of Law in Atlanta, Lawson is married with three children.
When he first moved to Atlanta from Tennessee, Lawson managed a shoe store and went to law school to get an increase in his veterans' benefits (he served six years in the Navy) not intending to start a practice.
That soon changed.
"It was just like the law was where I should have been," Lawson said.
He practiced as a partner with Bennett & Cloy in Jonesboro and served as a prosecutor, referee and judge for the Clayton County Juvenile Court before being elected to probate judge.
Another changed that occurred during Lawson's tenure is making the court accessible to people of limited means.
"If my successor follows that same philosophy my concerns about leaving will be assuaged," Lawson said.
Lawson's employees have a great respect for him.
"You couldn't ask for a better boss," said Ellen Guettler, Lawson's paralegal for four and a half years. "He's just so respectful of his employees and he cares about people and it shows in his work in the courtroom. And he's one of the most intelligent people I've known, I learn something from him everyday."
Probate Court Senior Registrar/Supervisor Kathy Roark describes her 19 years working for Lawson as "interesting with capital letters."
"He has a true love of and empathy for poor people," Roark said. "He really believes everybody should be treated equally. He's like nobody else I've ever worked for."
Even accomplished legislator Starr admires Lawson.
"I really hate to see him go, he's a great asset," Starr said. "He's always been there and always been active as a citizen in addition to being a judge. He's called on us numerous times and we've always tried to respond."
Lawson also founded and operates Samaritans Together, a charitable organization, and helped in the foundation of Rainbow House, the Association on Battered Women of Clayton County and the Spivey Foundation and is a member of the United Way advisory board.
Clayton County State Court Chief Judge Harold Benefield will probably decide to hold a special election on Sept. 16 to elect Lawson's replacement. But as Lawson wrote in his letter, "retirement does not mean inactivity."
He might ask Perdue to appoint him as a senior judge, but Lawson said he might also just keep his license with the bar association.
"By doing that I can serve as pro temp so I can continue to assist," Lawson said.