U.S. District Court Chief Judge Julie E. Carnes of the Northern District of Georgia recently tried an experiment.
She came down from the bench and, in her judicial robes, sat down at the defense table next to a defendant on supervised release.
She said she asked him how he was doing, if he was working, and told him he could make it. She said she wanted to let him know that she appreciated his efforts to follow the rules, and “that someone is paying attention.”
The probationer, she said, “was startled, very startled.”
Carnes said she is thinking about meeting once a month in the same way with a probationer she has sentenced. She called it an experiment in tackling recidivism rates. In inaugurating the experiment, “I decided to be my own guinea pig,” she said.
When felons are released from prison, Carnes said they often have little or no family support, no housing and lack even basic job skills. Directing them to find a place to live and get a job may not be enough, she suggested. But encouragement from the judge who sentenced them just might offer them a rare incentive to believe they can make it.
On Jan. 1, Carnes, 58, became the chief judge of the Northern District of Georgia. Appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, Carnes has been a federal judge for 16 years. She came to the bench as a career prosecutor in Atlanta who had served as appellate chief under three U.S. Attorneys and as one of seven members of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a post to which Bush had also appointed her and that she held for six years, until 1996.
Carnes grew up in southeast Atlanta. She remembers, as a child, going door-to-door campaigning for her father, Charles L. Carnes — a former Georgia legislator and, for years, the chief judge of the Fulton County State Court. The Charles L. Carnes Justice Center Building, part of the county courthouse complex in downtown Atlanta, is named for him.
Her father, now 82, took senior status in 1998, and he and his wife recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.
Her father, Carnes said, “is a remarkable man. He was elected 17 times to be chief of his court.” And, she said, “People like him. … A week wouldn’t go by that I wouldn’t hear, ‘I know your dad. He’s a great guy.’”
Carnes said that she used to think people were simply trying to ingratiate themselves with her by complimenting her father. But she came to realize they were sincere. “My dad is just a terrific leader. He can build consensus better than anybody I know. He’s very kind, and he also is very firm. He was absolutely dedicated to his court. He was insistent that everything he did be for the benefit of the court and the judicial system.”
Her father’s profession didn’t prompt Carnes to pursue the law as a career. A National Merit scholar at the University of Georgia, Carnes was an English major. She wanted to get a doctorate in English and was accepted into several graduate programs her senior year. “I always thought I’d be an English teacher,” she said. “I love reading; I love to teach. … Nothing struck me about the law as interesting as reading really great novels.” But in March of her senior year at UGA, “I impulsively took the last LSAT,” she recalled. She had taken no LSAT prep courses. “I took it cold. … It worked out well. ” She entered UGA’s law school the following fall. She said the study of law “ meshed pretty well with my writing skills, my analytical skills.”
To this day, she values the wordcraft in well-written legal briefs and judicial opinions as highly as she does the intellectual strength of the legal analysis.
Carnes graduated magna cum laude in law in 1975. She began her law career clerking for 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Senior Judge Lewis R. “Pete” Morgan at the federal courthouse in Newnan. Appointed as a federal district judge by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, Morgan had served for seven years (three of them as chief judge) before President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1968. When the 11th Circuit was created in 1981, Morgan joined the 11th Circuit, where he remained as a senior judge until 1996.
“He was so down to earth,” Carnes recalled. “He went to lunch with his law clerks every day. … His approach to being a judge was very even, very balanced. … He was very decent. He was as nice to the cleaning man as he was to a Supreme Court justice.”
Carnes said she gave serious thought to Morgan’s offer to become his staff attorney. Instead, in 1978 she secured a job as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Atlanta under then U.S. Attorney William L. Harper, who had been appointed by President Jimmy Carter. At the time, U.S. Attorney General Griffin B. Bell had mandated that, following the excesses of Watergate, politics would be stripped from the Justice Department and career prosecutors would be hired solely on merit without any political litmus test.
As a young Assistant U.S. Attorney, Carnes said she quickly gravitated to the office’s appellate practice and, eventually, became the appellate chief. “It was sort of being the legal guru in the office,” she said of the job. “I always had a sort of strategic mind.” She said she “loved the work,” including the give-and-take of oral arguments before the appellate bench, which she called energizing.
As appellate chief, Carnes came to believe that cases, even those that include oral arguments, are generally decided on the quality and reasoning presented in the briefs — a philosophy that, as a judge, she often shares with the lawyers who appear before her. “I always tell the lawyers, ‘Make it what you need it to be,’” she said of the briefs they submit. “The key is in the details and the facts.”
Carnes’ attention to detail extends beyond the finer analytical points of the legal briefs submitted in her cases. Attorneys also would be well-advised to mind their fonts and margins.
Carnes has been known to reject pleadings and order them refiled if they violate local rules regarding font size. In one case several years ago, Carnes forced attorneys with the Southern Center for Human Rights to scramble when she rejected their pleadings in a potential class action against the state’s Department of Corrections and gave them only five days to refile using fonts specified by the local rules. The judge added in her order that she would not accept anything less than a one-inch margin.
“Besides being a rule violation, submission of pleadings in small print size is poor advocacy,” she wrote in that case, “as print that is hard to read may not get the same consideration as print that is more legible.”
In 1984, when Carnes was still appellate chief, the U.S. Congress created the U.S. Sentencing Commission to establish uniform sentencing guidelines for the federal courts. The intent of the commission was to eliminate gross disparities in sentences among defendants convicted of similar offenses while still allowing some judicial flexibility.
Its creation was a sea change in the federal criminal justice system and generated enormous controversy, particularly from many federal judges who believed her authority was being curtailed.
“It was such a radical change,” Carnes recalled.
By 1987, the commission had issued its first set of guidelines, and Carnes’ then-boss, U.S. Attorney Bob Barr, wanted to know “What do we do here? What are the land mines?” she recalled. Barr allowed Carnes to sit in his place on the Justice Department’s U.S. Attorney’s Committee, which governed policy decisions and was then grappling with the creation of sentencing guidelines for the federal courts and advising the sentencing commission. “I’d been in the trenches,” she said. “I had some real practical insight into problems.”
When the sentencing commission created a special program for Assistant U.S. Attorneys during which they would serve temporarily as special counsel to the commission, Carnes parlayed her experiences into a five-month appointment as special counsel to the Sentencing Commission in 1989.
With that job, “All the doors to my future career opened,” she said. During her stint as special counsel, the commission chairman, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William W. Wilkins Jr., “befriended me,” Carnes recalled. “He became a mentor to me.”
That same year, after one of the seven commissioner slots opened, Wilkins urged Carnes “to put my name in the hat.”
“The odds were very long,” she said. “I was an Assistant U.S. Attorney with no political ties to President Bush.” The Republican president, she recalled, “got no political points for picking me, but he picked me. … I will always be appreciative. It was very, very exciting.”
But Carnes also said she went after the post in what became “a real grassroots effort” as well as a bipartisan one. She would call people, telling them, “You don’t know me,” and then would persuade them to support her candidacy. Her father, a Democrat, “was beloved by everybody and had lots of Democratic friends” who offered their support. By then, Carnes had worked as the appellate chief not only for a Democratic U.S. Attorney but also for two Republican U.S. Attorneys — Larry D. Thompson and Barr — and found that many of the Georgia Republicans she contacted were willing to offer their help as well. Barr told the Washington, D.C.-based Legal Times, a Fulton County Daily Report affiliate, that Carnes was “topnotch” and that her appointment would be “a tremendous opportunity for the commission.”
She joined the commission in 1990 and served on it for six years. She found the work to be rewarding — “almost like a puzzle” in its “combination of thinking like an appellate lawyer and practical thinking.” The guidelines were “very unpopular with judges,” she said, and after their initial introduction in 1987, required “many, many amendments.”
Carnes had been on the commission less than eight months — and had moved to Washington,D.C. — when she received a call from Thompson, under whom Carnes had worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. Thompson went on to become U.S. Deputy Attorney General under President George W. Bush.
Thompson told her that Georgia lawyer Fred Cooper, a member of Georgia’s Republican establishment who for years has vetted candidates for the federal judiciary and U.S. Attorney slots in Georgia for the Republican Party, wanted to consider her as a candidate for the federal bench in Atlanta.
Carnes said that as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, she had been apolitical. “The Republicans didn’t know much about me, but I had a father who was a Democrat.” But at lunch with Cooper, he told her that his goal was “to get good people.”
Nominated by Bush in 1991, Carnes found that her confirmation hearing — to which her father accompanied her — was exciting. “It was not formulaic. … They actually asked questions about sentencing policy. It was a very interesting back-and-forth.” She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 1992. She was then 41.
While Carnes’ nomination was pending, Bush nominated another — and unrelated — Carnes to the 11th Circuit. Julie Carnes said she shares no blood kinship to U.S. Circuit Judge Edward E. Carnes. But, she said, it is “uncanny” how much they have in common. Both were Bush nominees, who were named to the bench within months of each other. Both were born in 1950. Following law school, both were career prosecutors who became the appellate chiefs of their respective offices. Both have a clear appreciation for the written word. And because they share a name, the two judges often get each other’s e-mails, she said. “He writes wonderful, long opinions” heavy on literary allusions, she said. “I share a real kinship with Ed,” she said. “And I admire him greatly.”
Carnes retired from the sentencing commission at the end of her term in 1996. President Bill Clinton “wanted me to stay on for a second term,” she recalled. “I declined, but I was always flattered to have been asked.”
Nine years later, in 2005, Carnes was selected by then U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist to serve on the criminal law committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States. The committee’s most important work, Carnes said, is on sentencing, and it makes frequent recommendations to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. In 2007, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. appointed Carnes as the committee chairwoman.
The committee Carnes chairs also oversees federal probation offices, which has led the committee to undertake an initiative to reduce recidivism among released offenders and prompted Carnes’ personal experiment to come down off the bench and talk with her probationers face-to-face. Carnes said that she also, “when appropriate … would write a personal letter to the offender” to say, “I’m really proud of what you’ve done.”
“Judges are not social workers,” she continued. “You have to go into any project like that with a realistic attitude. … No one of us has superhuman powers to change human nature.”
Yet, she added, “But we can change some of it, I think.”
Carnes has had her share of high-profile cases, most recently the prosecutions of five Atlanta police officers — all members of the narcotics squad — who faced charges associated with the 2006 shooting death of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. After police burst through Johnston’s door with a search warrant based on falsified information, a terrified Johnston fired a shot at what she thought were intruders. Police returned fire, killing her.
The subsequent investigation revealed a squad that routinely lied to obtain warrants.
During an emotional, two-day sentencing hearing for three of those officers last month, Carnes rejected arguments made by U.S. Attorney David E. Nahmias — who appeared personally to argue for a 10- to 14-year sentence for one of the officers, Arthur Tesler. According to news reports by The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Carnes rejected the recommendation as “unduly harsh” after Nahmias failed to persuade her that Tesler had played more than a minor role. Carnes then sentenced Tesler to five years.
The judge noted from the bench that “the pressures brought to bear” by the police department’s arrest quotas pushed the officers to lie in order to make cases.
One case that made Carnes’ name one that now is nationally recognized was her order in an Atlanta defamation case naming as defendants the parents of 6-year-old slain beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey.
Through the prism of that defamation suit, Carnes examined the 1996 murder case and became the first official associated with the justice system to determine that there was “virtually no evidence” to support theories, including those held by the Boulder, Colo., Police Department, that the little girl’s parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, had killed her.
In her 93-page order, which dismissed the case against the Ramseys brought by a Boulder man who claimed they had told police he was a possible suspect, Carnes found “abundant evidence” to support assertions that an intruder entered into their home at some point during the night of Dec. 25, 1996, and killed their daughter.
Carnes’ opinion helped to turn the tide of public opinion that had condemned the Ramseys and breathed life into a fresh reconsideration of the case by Boulder authorities.
Reflecting on the opinion, which she issued in 2003, Carnes said she treated it as she would have any other summary judgment motion, noting that “the plaintiff made very little effort to offer any facts” to support his allegations that the Ramseys were killers.
But she said she was surprised at the dearth of evidence against the Ramseys given that the media “had played the story very differently.”
There are lessons to be drawn from the Ramsey case, she said. “What it teaches is that drawing broad inferences based on very limited and selective evidence is a very dangerous thing to do.”