JONESBORO — Judge Matthew O. Simmons will retire Dec. 31 after 24 years on the bench in Clayton County Superior Court.
At a ceremony honoring the judge Thursday, Simmons thanked the many people who contributed to his life and work.
“I do appreciate all you’ve done for me all these years,” Simmons told the room filled with family, friends and colleagues at the Harold R. Banke Justice Center. “Back in 1974, I remember loading up in a green Volkswagon and heading over to Athens.
“I never would have imagined that I would have the opportunity to come back here, serve as mayor of my hometown and serve six terms as Superior Court judge in this county. It is a great honor that y’all have given me,” Simmons said.
Simmons has spent his entire career in public service in Clayton County. Valedictorian of his graduating class at Forest Park High School, Simmons went on to graduate from the University of Georgia and from the university’s Law School in 1979. He also holds a master of laws from Emory University, earned in 1982.
He returned to Forest Park in 1979 to begin his private practice. Four years later, at the age of 27, Simmons was elected to the Forest Park City Council. He was elected mayor of Forest Park at age 30 and would serve in that capacity until he was elected to his superior court seat in 1992.
In his over two decades in service to Clayton County and the state, Simmons has heard thousands of cases. He served as chief judge of the Clayton County Judicial Circuit from 2006 to 2010.
Simmons will officially retire from the bench at the end of the year and will be succeeded by Clayton County Commissioner and Judge-elect Shana Rooks. Rooks was on hand Thursday to present a proclamation of gratitude to the judge on behalf of the county commission.
“It is bittersweet,” Rooks said of the sendoff. “I cut my teeth practicing law here before Judge Simmons, and he’s not going to be (truly) gone because we’re going to have to call you back to hear some cases. Hats off to you, Judge Simmons.”
Several of Simmons’ friends and colleagues spoke of the judge’s integrity and fairness throughout his distinguished career. Many shared a joke or funny memory at the amiable judge’s expense.
Henry County Superior Judge Brian Amero said he has admired Simmons since he was assigned to his courtroom as a Clayton County Assistant District Attorney in the 90s. Simmons, Amero said, was “a natural on the bench.”
“I had the opportunity to watch a judge at work who handled things expertly,” Amero said. “Every day I would go into court and I would see a man who was diligent, who was responsible, who was competent, who was analytical… and he did it with grace and ease.”
State Court Chief Judge John Carbo described Simmons as a “lifelong friend.” Carbo grew up with Simmons, playing for the same baseball team as grade school children and eventually attending UGA together as roommates.
“You will be missed not just by those of us that are here, but by all the citizens in Clayton County and in the state of Georgia,” Carbo said, adding he expected to maintain their standing Thursday lunch dates and frequent golf match-ups.
The justice center’s jury assembly room was filled to capacity Thursday. Several members of Simmons’ family, including his wife Donna, and friends who had travelled from across the state gathered to tearfully acknowledge the judge’s many years of service.
His adult son Lucas said growing up the son of a judge was an “interesting experience.” The younger Simmons said he learned much from his father, quipping that he was the only child in his elementary school with a knowledge of tort law.
“He taught me valuable lessons about right and wrong,” Lucas Simmons said. “He taught me how to treat everyone fairly and with respect.
“I not only grew up as the son of the Honorable Matthew Simmons, but I’m also the son of — in my extremely biased opinion — the greatest dad ever,” he added. “If any one of us could look ourselves in the mirror and know that we are half as good a judge, friend, father, or person that you have been, well then we too could be considered great.”
Simmons will be considered a senior judge upon his retirement, and he may return to hear cases in Clayton County from time to time.
“I’m not going to miss the work, because it can be very tedious, but I’ll miss the people,” Simmons told supporters. “Because the best thing about all these years has been all of y’all.”