Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
Seeking a quieter life in retirement, Clayton County Clerk of Courts Linda Miller shocked several officials in the county's court system by unexpectedly stepping down, as of Friday, after nearly 18 years in the elected office.
As of Thursday, Miller's chief deputy clerk, Jacquline Wills, was scheduled to have been sworn in -- Friday afternoon, by Clayton County Probate Judge Pam Ferguson -- as the new clerk of courts. Wills will serve the final two years of Miller's current term.
Miller, 59, who previously planned to retire in 2008, had two years left on her fifth term as clerk of courts. She was first elected to the office in 1993, but actually began working in the clerk's office in 1969, under her predecessor, former clerk of courts, Joe B. Mundy.
"After 41 years worth of service in this office, I just want to retire and spend time with my family, and do other things," Miller said. "I wanted to retire in 2008 [when her fourth term expired], but I kept getting pressure from a bunch of people to run again."
As clerk of courts, Miller, and her staff, were responsible for handling court records for Clayton County Superior Court and Clayton County Magistrate Court. From 1993, until 2000, her duties also included handling records for Clayton County State Court, until that court got its own clerk.
Several of the handful of people who knew before Friday that Miller was stepping down said they were caught off guard when she told them of her plans. "I'm crushed, because I believe she is the best [court] clerk in the state of Georgia, and she's going to be greatly missed," said Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson. Lawson later added that when Miller told her of her plans, "I was totally stunned. I thought I had her for another two years."
Clayton County Sheriff Kem Kimbrough added: "I'm very sad to see her go. I understand everything has a reason for happening, but I don't think she can be replaced in our court system, because of the [institutional] knowledge she has about this court system ... She's someone I have called upon, from time to time, for advice on how to do something, and if she didn't think it was a good idea, I didn't do it."
Miller said she kept her departure a secret because she did not want people to make a big deal about her departure, on her last day at work, which was Thursday, because county offices were closed on Friday.
Miller kept her impending departure such a secret that Wills, and a supervisor, were the only people in Miller's own office who knew her plans. "I like doing things to surprise people; it's just my nature to pull surprises," Miller said.
Outside of her office, the only others she told were Lawson, Kimbrough, Ferguson, Clayton County Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin, and fewer than a handful of Clayton Superior Court judges.
Ferguson, who has known Miller for more than 30 years, was the only person who said she was not surprised by the decision. "I think she served her time, and I'm not surprised, after she's been there so long, that she wanted to try something new," Ferguson said.
Ferguson added that one of Miller's biggest attributes has always been that the now-former clerk of courts did not hide her feelings on issues. "She has the courage to speak her mind, so you never had to guess how she felt about something."
People who worked with Miller said one of her biggest impacts on the court system will be her work to improve the technology used by the system. "She's been very progressive with computer systems, more so, I think, than any other clerk in this state," Lawson said.
Miller explained that, back in the 1980's, when she was still working for Mundy, she was part of the team that developed an integrated computer system that allows the county's courts, clerk's office, district attorney's office, sheriff's office and police departments to share information with one another.
She said the system allows one of the involved parties to put in information that is instantaneously available to the others. "If you happen to be released from jail by a judge, and you leave the courthouse and get 10 miles down the road, and a cop stops you, they can look in this system, and it will already show there was a disposition in your case," Miller said. "When we relied on a paper system, it could take weeks for all of the departments to have that information."
Kimbrough said that kind of integrated system is revolutionary, even by today's standards. "We were 30 years ahead of our time," he said. "There are some very sophisticated, urban counties who haven't gotten to this kind of system yet, and we've been doing it for years, in part, due to Linda Miller pushing for it back in the 1980's."
Miller said the only thing she wanted to put in place, but did not get a chance to install, is an e-filing system, in which citizens and attorneys can submit their court documents to all of the county's courts via a computer, rather than having to go to the court clerks' offices in person.
She said she has been trying to get the system in place since the 1990s, but has not been able to get all of the parties involved on the same page. "That's the only thing I wish I could have gotten done before I left, but, hopefully, they [her now-former staff] will continue with the process of e-filing," she said.
Wills, who has worked in the clerk's office for more than 15 years, said she plans to continue pushing to get the e-filing system implemented. She also said she plans to run for a full, four-year term as the clerk of courts when the seat is up for election again in 2012. "If I can get that one thing [e-filling] accomplished, it'll be a major step forward in how we operate," she said.
Miller said that because she completed half of her term, a special election will not be needed to replace her. Wills, 50, will be only the county's fourth clerk of courts in nearly 90 years, based on information provided by Miller about how long she and her predecessors served as the elected clerks of courts.
"I have some big shoes to fill, and I appreciate Linda's confidence to let me fill her shoes," said Wills. "I've learned a lot from her over the last 15 years, about how this office runs."
Miller said she feels confident that Wills will do a good job, in part, because of the people who will work for her in the office. "They are wonderful employees," Miller said. "They'll be fine without me. They'll do well under her."