New court clerk’s goals include more technology

Special photo
Gail Carnes (left) takes the oath of office from Clayton County State Court Judge John C. Carbo, as she is sworn in as Clayton County State Court Clerk.

Special photo Gail Carnes (left) takes the oath of office from Clayton County State Court Judge John C. Carbo, as she is sworn in as Clayton County State Court Clerk.

With a lifelong interest in the legal field, college student Gail Carnes took a tentative step into a job at the Clayton County State Court clerk's office.

It was 1982. Carnes, born and raised in Morrow, was taking classes at Georgia State University and working at a law firm in downtown Atlanta. She found a listing for the Clayton job and rationalized applying for it.

"I figured it was a way to be closer to home," she said. "I put school on the back burner. That was a mistake. I should have finished."

If she had, her career might have taken a slightly different turn. In December, after putting in nearly 30 years in State Court, Carnes was sworn in as the appointed clerk. State Court Judge John C. Carbo administered the oath of office.

Carbo was appointed in 1983, as the county's first full-time solicitor general, the State Court's top prosecutor. Carnes worked with him in court until he was appointed to the bench, and made her his administrative assistant.

"Judge Carbo is a brilliant man," said Carnes. "The wealth of knowledge that I took away from working with him is worth more than any degree. Being immersed in the State Court environment, I was able to get views from the back side, and front side, of the courts."

In the 30 years since Carnes walked through the doors of the Clayton County Courthouse, she's witnessed incredible changes. Not the least of which was the relocation of the offices from the 1898 historic courthouse, in Jonesboro, to the Banke Justice Center, in 1998. Also, as the population has nearly doubled since 1980 to about 300,000, the demographics have shifted, too.

Where Clayton was once a majority white county, the percentage of white residents has dropped to about 20 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Included in the majority population 30 years later is a pocket of non-English-speaking people.

"It's not just Hispanics," said Carnes. "We have Asians, Laotians, people who speak Mandarin Chinese. They come in here needing different services from the courts. These are challenges that are met by our employees every day."

Up until about 15 or so years ago, court cases were docketed in oversized, red bound volumes. The entries were handwritten. Now, not only are cases docketed on computers, they are accessible by the public.

"We've witnessed the evolution of automation," she said. "And we've been on the cutting edge of technology, so far. I'd like for Clayton to be the first pilot county to do E-filing, to become a more paperless environment."

Resources are the biggest challenge, but Carnes is hopeful.

"I'm very excited, this is my baby, and I really want to get it implemented soon," she said.

Clayton County Court Administrator Matt Sorenson shares her enthusiasm.

"I'm looking forward to the new administration and doing great things especially with technology," he said.

Carnes leads a staff of about 24 clerks. The title "clerk" is a misnomer.

"We're more than paper pushers," she said. "Clerks need to have knowledge of legal proceedings and be able to guide the public to the information they need."

And members of the public are just as apt to see Carnes as any of the clerks behind the glass partition inside the clerk's office.

"I'm a working clerk," she said. "I'll actually wait on the public and not wait back here in my safe haven. I recognize I am only as good as my staff makes me. I want to be a leader and be recognized as something they respect. I want them to know I've got their backs."

Inside her "safe haven," visitors are treated to numerous family photos. First and foremost are those of her two grandchildren, brothers who are 2 1/2 and 6 months. To the boys, she is "GiGi" –– Grandma Gail. Conversations gradually turn from her passion for all things legal to time spent with her grandsons.

"They are absolutely great," she said. "I'm very proud of them."

Carnes also passes the time devouring true crime books. She speaks with some expertise on the books of Ann Rule and Jack Olsen, rattling off titles and subjects written by the best-selling authors.

But she is most proud of her professional success, and that she worked her way up through the ranks.

"I think it's better to have someone who's worked up the ladder," said Carnes. "I never felt entitled to this position. And I want to prove the judges right. We have a great bench here, and I am thankful for the opportunity."