Judge Myra Dixon of Fulton County State Court graduated from Tennessee State University and Howard University law school. She began her legal career in 1978 as a civilian attorney with the Navy in Washington and later served as a public defender and an assistant U.S. attorney. She then spent 13 years practicing law at Thomas, Kennedy, Sampson & Patterson, becoming a partner in 1992.
In 1998, she became an Atlanta City Court judge, and a year later, Gov. Roy Barnes appointed her to the Fulton State Court, where she has served a stint as chief judge.
Here is our Q&A:
What inspired you to become a lawyer?
I am a native of Memphis, Tennessee, and came of age during the civil rights movement. In April 1968, while I was in the ninth grade, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to lend his considerable stature and leadership to a contentious strike organized by the city sanitation workers. They wanted better working conditions and higher pay, which were nothing less than inhumane. As history has well documented, Dr. King was assassinated and riots broke out in Memphis and other cities.
Dr. King’s death was a great loss to me but a real awakening that I needed to get serious about how I could contribute to the civil rights cause. I watched people, mainly African-Americans, being arrested, beaten and treated unfairly. I became keenly aware that people needed attorneys to represent them and to vindicate their rights. I decided that I wanted to become an attorney to help disadvantaged people to understand their rights and represent people who could not afford to hire a costly lawyer.
Like so many others, I was inspired by Dr. King’s concern for others and his influential role in the civil rights movement. His assassination marked the turning point in my life and the beginning of my journey to the judiciary.
What drew you to apply for judgeships, first on the Atlanta City Court and then the Fulton County State Court?
When I applied to be a judge in 1998 on the Atlanta City Court, I had been practicing law for 19 years. I had worked in the public sector as a Fulton County public defender and as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. On a regular basis I served as a pro hac vice judge in the Municipal Court of Atlanta.
I had been a partner at the law firm of Thomas, Kennedy, Sampson & Patterson. In light of what I witnessed growing up during the civil rights movement, I aspired to be a judge. My career choices which provided me with a depth of experience in the legal profession, coupled with challenging life experiences, have been instrumental in enabling me to make sound, deliberate decisions. I was well prepared to serve on the bench in the Atlanta City Court when I was appointed by then-Mayor Bill Campbell in 1998. I believed that my service on that court could serve as a stepping stone to a higher court, if I excelled there.
I set my sights on attaining a judgeship on the bench of the State Court of Fulton County. I had practiced there for most of my legal career, trying civil and criminal cases. Because of the variety of complex civil cases filed in the court, I would be presented with the opportunity to utilize my trial experience to make sound decisions on familiar issues that arise in trial. My experience would serve to enable litigants to receive a fair and balanced trial.
Fulton County State Court has seen its share of significant civil trials, with some cases generating national attention and tried by some of the best lawyers in the country. In regard to the misdemeanor criminal cases, I was interested in changing behaviors at this stage of criminal activity and crafting sentences that help people to better their lives as well as help the community as a whole. I was fortunate to have been appointed to the Fulton County State Court by Gov. Roy Barnes in 1999. My tenure on this court has exceeded my every expectation.
What are some of the habits you have found in the lawyers who are most successful in trials?
Attorneys who have professional courtroom behavior tend to be most successful in trials. Judges and jurors hold professionalism in high regard. Habits exhibiting professionalism include: Attorneys who are courteous to opposing counsel and the court; attorneys who have respect for the jurors’ time and the court by being organized in how they intend to present their cases; attorneys who provide the jury with a reasonable basis as to why a certain verdict is being sought instead of just reciting the testimony of each witness; attorneys who are honest with the facts submitted to the jury and the law submitted to the court; and, finally, attorneys who dress appropriately. In other words, professionalism and civility make litigation successful and enjoyable.
What have you learned about juries during your time working with them?
On occasion I am quite surprised by the jury verdicts. However, on a whole, the jurors get it right the majority of the time. Jurors strive to be fair and efficient and are in search of the truth.
Jurors take their job seriously and strive to uphold their oaths. I have been amazed by their dedication and zeal in seeking to find the truth.
What is one of your proudest accomplishments in the law, and what challenge did you have to overcome so you could achieve it?
In the early ’90s I represented a very large, corporate client in a case in Forsyth County Superior Court. Forsyth County had a long history of racial tension, dating back several decades. The racial makeup of the county was nearly all white.
A relatively short time before my scheduled trial in the county, there had been a widely publicized march against racism. The protesters were met with rocks and bottles thrown at them during their peaceful demonstration. The scene garnered national attention, and as a result Oprah Winfrey featured the controversy on her nationally syndicated television show. It was from that historical backdrop that I proceeded to the Forsyth County Courthouse to represent my client. When I arrived, I could not help but notice that I was the only African-American in the entire courthouse.
I imagined that I would be treated unfairly in the trial and would automatically receive unfavorable rulings on objections and motions. However, to my surprise, that was not the case; everyone in the courtroom treated me professionally. The women on staff appeared to take great pride in my being a woman attorney in court.
Many unsuspecting and surprising issues arose in this case. Some were life-changing for me. Judge Richard Gault, who is now deceased, and his staff treated me with humanity and respect and really renewed my faith in humankind at a time when it may have been acceptable to do otherwise.
The best news is that the jury returned a verdict in favor of my client. Afterward, I was safely escorted to the county border by the Forsyth County sheriffs. As I drove home, I remember thinking that this was not just a court victory for me but that it represented something much more: A small victory for social change had just occurred in Forsyth County, Georgia.