Kenneth Hodges (left) is administered the judicial oath by retired Court of Appeals Judge Edward Johnson as his wife, Melissa, and daughter, Margaret, stand by. (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Ken Hodges (left) is administered the judicial oath by retired Court of Appeals Judge Edward Johnson as his wife, Melissa, and daughter, Margaret, stand by. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

Newly elected Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Ken Hodges was officially sworn in before he started work the first of the year. So Wednesday’s investiture ceremony was really more of a “thank you” to those who helped him win a contested statewide election for the open seat with nearly 70 percent of the vote.

The crowd filled the seats and lined the walls in the back of the courtroom. The thank yous were abundant, including friends and family from his South Georgia hometown of Albany, new colleagues on the state’s intermediate appellate court, justices on the Georgia Supreme Court and the entire State Bar of Georgia, of which Hodges currently serves as president.

The tribute that choked him up was the one for his wife, Melissa Hodges, former television news anchor in Albany. He gave her an improved version of Jack Nicholson’s line to Helen Hunt in “As Good as it Gets:”

“Melissa, you make me a better man,” Hodges said, his voice cracking with tears. But the lady who stole the show was the couple’s daughter, Margaret, 9, who got up during her father’s emotional speech and wrapped her arms around him.

Another highlight was a particularly thorough prayer given by Augusta Circuit Superior Court Judge Danny Craig, also a newly ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, who knew Hodges when they were both district attorneys. Craig read from a text from the 18th chapter of Exodus, recalling Jethro’s advice to Moses to avoid wearing himself out by trying to shoulder the responsibility of leadership alone. Instead, Craig said, quoting, “Lighten your burden by letting them bear it with you.”

The Exodus story holds value for a collaborative appellate body such as the 15-member Court of Appeals, with a burden to carry for each other and the 10 million people of Georgia, Craig said.

Hodges won the seat once held by Judge John Ellington, who left the job open so he could run for Justice Carol Hunstein’s spot on the Georgia Supreme Court. Ellington ran unopposed. But Hodges had to fight for the job, against trial lawyer Ken Shigley, who also served a term as bar president.

The ceremony was also a tiny bit of a roast of Hodges the candidate, who traveled all over the state and called on many friends for support. They’re all glad it’s over, said his friend and former prosecutor colleague, Judge Beverly Martin of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Martin said she asked Hodges if he enjoyed campaigning, and he said yes, except for fundraising. But she didn’t believe it.

“He seemed like he was having a great time,” she said. She said she didn’t think Hodges believed her when she told him federal judges are prohibited from supporting political candidates. The crowd laughed when she asked them to vouch for her on that point.

Martin said Hodges stood out as a prosecutor who was willing to work with her when she was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Some DA’s tended to be more territorial, she said. Hodges joined forces with her to improve the conviction rate for those charged with physical and sexual abuse of children, she said.

But Martin added that she has heard Hodges as a defense attorney rail about the injustice of keeping people locked up unnecessarily.

“I love that about Ken,” Martin said. “It uniquely qualifies him for this job.”

Longtime friend and retired Court of Appeals Judge Edward Johnson gave Hodges the oath of office. And retired Court of Appeals Judge Herbert Phipps, also a longtime friend from Albany, gave a welcome.

Phipps also contributed a touch to the roast. As a superior court judge in Albany when Hodges was district attorney, Phipps said, “I had to put the brakes on him sometimes.” Phipps said Hodges reminded him a little of an instant replay on a professional sports broadcast. “After he’d make a good point, he’d keep on making it,” Phipps said. “I’d have to say, ‘Mr. Hodges, we heard you the first time. Move on.’”

Hodges, 52, said he’s happy where he is right now. He thanked Margaret and her one-year-younger brother, Jack, “for keeping me young and making me not want to retire anytime soon.”