Before she finished elementary school, Asha Jackson knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.
She wanted to be Judge Wapner.
From 1981 to 1993, Judge Joseph Wapner — a retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge favored by Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1988 movie Rain Man — presided over The People’s Court, a long-running television show centered on Wapner’s resolution of small claims cases. As a child, Jackson became a fan.
At the YMCA’s after-school program, she says the children would play court. “I got to be the judge every time,” she says.
“I knew I was going to do it,” Jackson says of her childhood ambition in a recent interview with the Daily Report. “I didn’t know how I was going to get there. But I knew I was going to do it.”
Last May, Jackson, 37, attained her goal when Governor Nathan Deal appointed her to fill the seat of DeKalb Superior Court Judge Michael Hancock, for whom she had clerked after graduating from Tulane University Law School.
“Out of all the law clerks I have hired over the past 20 years, there have been only two I really wish I could have found a way to offer competitive pay to keep,” Hancock wrote in a letter recommending her as a candidate for post. “Asha is one.”
DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James Jr. — a member of the state Judicial Nominating Commission that submitted Jackson’s name to Deal — describes Jackson as “a person of very, very keen intellect.”
“But there are a lot of smart people out there,” he says. “There are other things that are needed.”
“I’ve seen her heart for the community and her heart for people and for young people in particular,” James continues. “Intellect is one thing. She has that. Knowledge of the law is one thing. She has that. But to have that common touch, to have that care about people. Nobody cares about people more than Asha Jackson.”
Two months into her new job, Jackson says, “I love it.” She already is developing a program for young probationers under 25 based on the mock trial courts that she experienced as a law student.
She requires young probationers to report directly to her every three months, read books and write book reports. She envisions a program where the young offenders who have successfully completed probation will return and participate as mentors to other young offenders.
“Even if you’re saving just one, that’s progress,” she says.
But she is not above handing down tough sentences. One of her first cases was a brutal rape at a Stone Mountain church where the defendant raped a church employee at knifepoint and stomped on her head, breaking several bones in her face and fracturing her skull. Jackson sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences and 115 years.
Jackson’s education, beginning in the Atlanta Public School system, helped prepare her for a legal and judicial career. As a student at Atlanta’s Frederick Douglass High School, she was a member of the school debate team and participated in the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program — then a six-week summer program for intellectually and artistically talented high school students that numbers among its alumni newly minted Georgia Supreme Court Justice Keith Blackwell.
After winning an Urban League Leadership Scholarship, Jackson — whose mother’s family is from New York — attended the University of Rochester, where she majored in public health. While there, she served four years on the All Campus Judicial Counsel, three as an associate justice and her senior year as chief justice. The judicial counsel is tasked with disciplining students charged with infractions of the university’s honor code, including academic dishonesty. Jackson says she made the decision to join the panel because, “This was service to my school. And I wanted to be a judge some day.”
After graduating from the University of Rochester, Jackson headed south to Tulane in New Orleans where — as at Rochester — she served for three years on the law school’s honor board. The experience would serve her well, she says.
“I got to listen to both sides of arguments and decide, in some respects, what was going to happen to people’s lives,” she recalls.
Returning home to Atlanta, she secured a clerkship with Hancock. “It was one of her professors who referred her for consideration for my law clerk opening,” Hancock wrote in his letter to James in his role as a JNC member. “He did me a favor.”
And, Hancock wrote, “I have been pleased to serve as a mentor for her along the way.”
After clerking for Hancock, Jackson joined Atlanta litigation firm Carlock Copeland & Stair where she immediately was thrown into two of metro Atlanta’s most high-profile cases: litigation stemming from the discovery of more than 300 uncremated bodies at the Tri-State Crematory in Walker County and the civil defense of Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis in a wrongful death suit stemming from the 2000 Super Bowl slaying of two men at a Buckhead nightclub. Lewis and two members of his entourage were charged with those murders. Lewis eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, and was given a one-year, probated sentence.
Jackson says she dived in. ” ‘Figure it out’ is the slogan where I come from,” she says.
Within five years, Jackson made partner.
In 2011, she moved to the Atlanta offices of Barnes & Thornburg, a full-service law firm that had recruited her for nearly two years. Jackson became the only female partner in its Atlanta office and one of just two African-American partners firmwide. A year later, Hancock announced his retirement, and Jackson — with the firm’s support — sought her mentor’s judicial post.
“We were very disappointed when she left us,” says managing partner Stuart Johnson. “It was a loss for Barnes & Thornburg, but, frankly, it was a great benefit for the community and the bench in DeKalb County.
” She’s a wonderful lawyer. … She’ll be a wonderful judge.”
- Undergraduate: University of Rochester, public health
- Law School: Tulane University Law School
- As a kid wanted to be: A judge or an anchorwoman like Monica Kaufman Pearson
- Last vacation: Sarasota, Lido Beach and Siesta Key, Fla., with her mother to visit her grandmother
- Last book read: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave
- First job: Chick-fil-A at Greenbriar Mall when she was 16
- The takeaway: The importance of knowing there are opportunities for service even in the workplace.