Judge Cassandra Kirk
Judge Cassandra Kirk (John Disney/Daily Report)

Upon assuming her duties at the first of the year, Fulton County Chief Magistrate Cassandra Kirk faced the usual hurdles anyone walking into a new job encounters: new faces, unfamiliar tasks, ongoing projects and initiatives that will require some getting up to speed.

But Kirk also found herself in a position unlike any of her predecessors: Not only did she have a new job, she also was in charge of a newly independent court.

“My biggest challenge so far has been helping everyone around me understand that magistrate court is separate and distinct from the state court,” said Kirk.

“We’re doing that [separation] as efficiently as possible,” she said. “But there are budgetary and other challenges.”

“I think the biggest difference is I have fresh eyes; I’m not particularly tied to the state or superior court. I think I bring an opportunity to do some innovation.”

For the first time since the Fulton Magistrate Court’s creation in 1980, the chief was selected by the governor instead of the Fulton State Court judges. And in four years, the position will be filled by a nonpartisan election, as in every other county in Georgia.

The change was part of a slate of recommendations proffered by a court improvement task force in 2012, authorized by the Legislature the following year. Kirk replaced Chief Magistrate Stephanie Davis, whose term expired on Dec. 31.

Another part of the revamped court is that traffic court cases now go to state court, although magistrates still preside over them by appointment.

Other changes remain works in progress, including discussions about who will handle the duties of magistrate court clerk. At this point, State Court Clerk Cecily Barber is serving as clerk and court administrator for both courts.

Other legislation gives the chief magistrate the authority to appoint a court administrator, Kirk said, and—in consultation with the county attorney—to designate a clerk.

“I am assessing whether a transition is in the best interest of magistrate court,” said Kirk.

Another key issue concerns the appointment of the full-time magistrates who serve the court. Under the old rules, the state court chief judge made that decision. That authority sometimes rankled judges on the superior court, where magistrate judges commonly sit by appointment to preside over such proceedings as first appearance or bond hearings.

Under the reorganized magistrate court, candidates for the position of full-time magistrates are selected and vetted by a committee, including judges from the state and superior courts. That panel then submits a list of finalists to the judges of the state and superior courts, who vote whether or not to approve them.

The benches of both courts have already voted upon a slate of eight new magistrates, but Kirk declined to identify them until they’ve accepted the positions.

In an earlier interview, Kirk said that those who were then awaiting approval included one or more of the current full-time magistrates.

The selection committee included State Court Chief Judge Myra Dixon; Superior Court Deputy Chief Judge Wendy Shoob; Decatur solo J. Kevin Franks; Isenberg & Hewitt partner Harriet Isenberg; and Troutman Sanders senior counsel Norman Underwood.

Although new to the magistrate court, Kirk brings some judicial and administrative experience to the position. From 2010 until this year, she served as an associate judge of the Fulton County Juvenile Court. Before that she served as supervising and senior attorney with the county’s Office of the Child Attorney, where she also served a brief stint as interim director.

Kirk has also served as a member of the Metro Conflict Defender’s juvenile division, and as a prosecutor in Fulton and Newton counties. She also served as director of legal services for the Georgia Merit System in 2004 and 2005.

A graduate of Washington and Lee University School of Law, Kirk joined the Georgia bar in 1992.

Kirk has never run for public office, but she said she has been active with the League of Women Voters of Fulton County and Atlanta, and is “tangentially connected” to politics through candidate forums and her work with the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys, NAACP and other organizations.

Although she has not been active in politics, she said her father was very active in the civil rights movement, “so I’ve always been very politically aware.”

Kirk said she’s also active with the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and is on the boards of the Georgia Association of Counsel for Children and Street Grace, a faith-based initiative that fights child sex trafficking.

Kirk said she has wanted to be a judge when she was young, “and to do that, I had to go to law school,” she said.

Kirk said she’s been working six days a week as she works on the reconfigured magistrate court. She credited Superior Court Chief Judge Gail Tusan and State Court Chief Judge Myra Dixon and the administrations of both courts for supporting her efforts.

Former Chief Magistrate Stephanie Davis has also been helpful, she said, as have the chief magistrates of DeKalb, Gwinnett and several other metro counties.

Kirk said she would like to expand upon some existing programs at the Fulton Magistrate Court and to reach out to community and legal organizations for assistance.

“I’d like to expand and improve upon our pre-trial intervention services,” she said. “We need training and community collaborations to help with housing needs, mental health needs.”

The Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation has been very active in providing counsel for dispossessory court, she said, “and I hope to strengthen that relationship.”

“Another thing we’re looking at is our youthful offender program,” said Kirk, referring to a post-adjudication drug court program she spearheaded in Juvenille Court.

She also would like to continue and expand a mental health court program begun by the late Kimberly Warden Rary, a longtime Fulton County magistrate who died in 2012.

Dixon, the chief judge of the Fulton State Court, and its administrator, Barber, said they were still waiting to see what sort of changes Kirk has in mind.

“I can’t say much right now, because I have not been advised of all the proposed changes,” said Dixon. “The only thing that has happened that we can see is the appointment of the new magistrates.”

Dixon said the moving of the traffic court under the aegis of the state court hasn’t changed things, at last not so far.

“As far as I know, the magistrates will continue handling the cases for the state court, as designated state court judges,” Dixon said.

Asked how her duties might be changing, Barber laughed.

“I have no idea,” she said. “That’s the $3 million question.”

Kirk said attorneys and litigants in the magistrate court should not notice any dramatic differences as any changes unfold.

“I think it’s just a matter of state court and magistrate court working out, among ourselves, an amicable separation,” she said. “The biggest thing for citizens to realize is that we are here to serve them even as we rebuild our system.”

This story has been changed to reflect corrections made from the initial version of the article. The changes include that Cassandra Kirk spoke with a Gwinnett County chief magistrate, not a Cobb County chief magistrate. Also, the original version misidentified the Georgia Association of Counsel for Children. Finally, the original article mistakenly referred to a program started by the late Kimberly Warden Rary as a “youthful offender program,” when it is actually a mental health court. The youth program is a drug court Cassandra Kirk spearheaded in Juvenile Court