Sitting in her chambers after being honored with a proclamation, reception and armloads of flowers at the start of the Fulton County Commission’s meeting Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Gail Tusan said that, while she is taking senior status at the month’s end, she won’t be slowing down.
“I’m not using the word ‘retirement’ anymore,” she said with a smile. “That word implies that there’s nothing more to do.”
Instead, Tusan said she is taking the words of poet Maya Angelou to heart: “‘The horizon leans forward, offering you space to place new steps of change.’ That’s where I am. Fulton County and this community is my horizon, and I’m looking forward to the next stage. I’m turning a page.”
The 62-year-old jurist has already ensured she’ll stay busy: She’s training to be a JAMS mediator in Atlanta, effective May 1, which is the day after she steps down as an active judge.
She’ll also continue to serve as an adjunct professor at Emory University School of Law, where she teaches civil trial procedure, and at Spelman College, where she created a once-a-week course called “Lessons from the Courtroom.”
“It involves talking to students about the intersection of political, cultural and legal issues,” Tusan said. “Many of the young women there are contemplating legal careers, and these are huge issues on campus.”
A mother and grandmother, Tusan is particularly focused on the county’s youth and educating them about how the justice system plays in their lives, and how to ensure that it’s a positive one.
Tusan noted that some of her students at Spelman often come from the same backgrounds as the young people she sees in court.
“I want them to say, ‘I’m not going to be defined by my surroundings, but by what I can become,’” she said.
She is taking that same focus to her volunteer role as chair of this year’s Law Day Committee.
“I wanted to develop an interactive event with high school students,” said Tusan. And earlier this month, a group of students and lawyers met at the State Bar of Georgia’s headquarters “to discuss the effects of bias, referring to people in stereotypes, of speaking without thinking of the harm you can do.”
The meeting came just as Tusan concluded a two-week, multidefendant gang murder trial.
“It really spoke volumes as to how a segment of our community has been left behind—perhaps out of poverty, hopelessness, confusion—for whatever reasons,” Tusan said.
Providing an opportunity to interact with the court and legal system, Tusan said, can show them “how to make their future different and brighter.”
From ‘Baby Judge’ to Senior Judge A 1981 graduate of the George Washington University School of Law, Tusan’s tenure with the county began about 35 years ago when she was a part-time magistrate. She worked as a city of Atlanta administrative law judge until 1992, when she was appointed to the State Court, then was named to the Superior Court by Gov. Zell Miller in 1995.
Tusan spent four years as the court’s chief judge until she stepped aside last year to make way for current Chief Judge Robert McBurney.
“I started out in the Charles Carnes building [the former State Court building next to the courthouse], before there was a Justice Center Tower,” she said, marveling at how the nine story tower and sprawling courthouse complex have nonetheless proved to be close quarters for the county’s burgeoning courts.
“We don’t even have room over here for the chief judge’s chambers,” she said.
Among the highlights of Tusan’s judicial career was helping launch the Family Division.
That started out as a pilot program after extensive consultation with the state bar, Tusan said, recalling that she and Judge Alford Dempsey and retired Judges T. Jackson Bedford and Cindy Wright were the first jurists in the division.
More recently, she presided over the Parent Accountability Court Program for parents who are behind on their child support obligations.
“We identify individuals who need help and are willing to make a commitment, whether it’s to get a job, GED, whatever it takes,” she said.
For those who comply, contempt citations are held in abeyance until the obligations are met.
Tusan is also proud of the work she did as chief judge in launching the Fulton County Justice Reinvestment Initiative in 2017, under which the county has provided additional funding to the various justice system agencies in return for a comprehensive plan aimed at lowering the jail population, speeding up the processing of criminal cases and improving communication among the departments and the county.
“The benefit is that we all understand what we have in common and that the County Commission really does want to support the justice system,” she said.
“There’s been increased funding for mental health and a lot of coordination between the courts and the county.”
Among the biggest changes she’s seen over the years is the marked increase in multidefendant, often gang-related, criminal trials and the rise of the internet and social media both in fostering that crime.
“With the rise of social media, there’s a lot of cyberbullying online, with people trying to intimidate or influence witnesses,” she said. “And a lot of the investigation involves monitoring social media.”
As she prepares to move forward, the peripatetic jurist (and one-time novelist) said she plans to spend a bit more time on the golf course and playing with her 2½-year-old granddaughter. She is still kicking up her heels occasionally with the dance troupe she founded a dozen years ago, Always Wanted to Dance.
“We respond to special invitations,” she said, including a recent performance at a ceremony honoring Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham.
“We danced to Kool & The Gang’s ‘Celebration,’” she said with a broad smile.
Looking back, she said, “it’s been revealing to start out as a ‘baby judge’ and evolve into a senior judge. We’ve had a lot of transitions on the court, with a lot of new judges being appointed in recent years; they’re full of energy and new ideas—that’s what the system needs.”
Asked what she’d like to add, Tusan said she wanted to express “my extreme gratitude for the opportunity to have served in this capacity. I value my colleagues, my citizens and my staff.”