Pamela South knew there had to be something more to her life than writing training guides about welding.
The future chief judge of Gwinnett County State Court quit her job as a technical writer at Mississippi State University, packed her bags and enrolled at the University of Georgia School of Law at age 28, never looking back to her home state of Mississippi.
The abrupt career change set South on a path to the place she feels most comfortable—sitting on the bench.
“I thought, ‘You know, I really want to be a little bit more in the real world,’ because so much of what you do in academics seems geared for a really small group of people. It’s very esoteric,” South said. “I wanted to be in the courtroom. I liked the human drama unfolding.”
She took over as chief judge this month because, having served 12 years, she’s now the most senior judge on the six-member bench, following the retirement of Chief Judge Robert Mock Sr.
It’s a career she didn’t expect earlier in life after she earned a master’s degree in English that led to the writing job. She didn’t have any lawyers in her family or even understand exactly what they did, but she knew she liked reading and research.
As a judge, she said she is a student of the law who uses it as her compass.
“The way to ensure fairness is to follow the law. There’s certainty in that,” South said. “Everybody should know what the law is and, if you follow the law, you’re trying to be fair.”
South, 56, sees herself as a courtroom manager and a clock watcher who tries to balance making hearings efficient with giving each side enough time to make its case. She’s not a stickler for procedure, but she strictly expects lawyers to be prepared and ready to go.
After law school, South worked for a small litigation firm in Covington before joining the Gwinnett district attorney’s office. After a decade as a prosecutor, she was appointed as a magistrate judge before Governor Roy Barnes tapped her for a new state court seat in 2001.
In her role as chief judge, South said she’ll closely monitor the growing needs of the court and attempt to improve communications with the county commission, county manager and finance department. Within a few years, she anticipates that the county might have to find ways to add space because the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center is already at capacity.
Besides her regular civil, misdemeanor criminal and administrative responsibilities, South is one of two judges overseeing the county’s DUI treatment court. The accountability court attempts to treat and change behavior of drunk driving offenders rather than send them through the traditional criminal justice process.
South said the DUI court forced her to see criminal defendants differently.
“I have a greater belief in the capacity for people to change than I did when I started,” South said. “I was one of these people who didn’t know if people could really change. I thought all you’re doing, you’re just putting a fence up so they don’t cross the line. But I have seen people really change. … When you see people who do embrace what the court system can do and go on to be a better person, a better father or mother, it’s very rewarding.”
She tells offenders in DUI court the story of an elderly man who was arrested for drunk driving on the way home from his son’s funeral. She felt sad for him, but then she learned that he was on probation at the time for a previous DUI, and that the latest arrest was his 12th DUI total.
South had no choice but to put him in jail and move him through the legal process, but she said the system had failed to get him the help he needed earlier in life. She said DUI court can provide treatment to prevent future problems like his.
Despite South’s upbringing as an assistant district attorney, she doesn’t have a reputation for favoring either side in both criminal and civil cases, said defense attorney B.J. Bernstein, a friend of South’s who worked with her as a Gwinnett prosecutor.
“No one pigeonholes her,” Bernstein said. “She’s a quiet technician. In terms of temperament, every judge should have a temperament like her. She listens, but she also speaks with force.”
South has been elected to state court three times—most recently in 2010—and she has never been opposed. She said she plans to stay on state court for the foreseeable future, calling it her “perfect job.”
“I have enough friends here in the bar that, if they feel I’m not really doing my job or not treating people fairly, I’d hear about it long before an election. I haven’t heard about it yet. I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” South said.