Judge Diane E. Bessen
Judge Diane E. Bessen ()

In her early days as a private attorney and part-time Fulton County magistrate, Diane Bessen occasionally had to attend what were then all-day motion calendars in the Fulton County State Court.

At the time, she recalls thinking that anyone who would consider becoming a full-time judge should have their head examined.

That was then. Now, after 15 years on the bench and newly designated as the chief judge of the Fulton County State Court, Bessen can’t imagine a legal role she’d rather have.

“I love my job,” Bessen said. “There are still days when I park my car downstairs and walk to the elevator, and I’m smiling because I get to do this every day.”

Bessen’s tenure as chief judge comes as the state court, which pioneered a voluntary e-filing system in Georgia nearly 20 years ago, joins the rest of the county justice system in transitioning to a different e-filing setup and shared data transmission.

At the same time, the constituent parts of that system are also engaged in a county-backed justice system reinvestment program aimed at streamlining court processes, reducing case backlogs and shrinking the population at the Fulton County Jail.

As a result, Bessen, 59, said she spends a lot of time in meetings with information technology staff and representatives of the other “justice partners” trying to smooth out operations.

“I think the [reinvestment initiative] is a good thing. It’s particularly effective with the courts, sheriff, district attorney, public defender really making an effort to work together,” said Bessen, who credited the Board of Commissioners and County Manager Dick Anderson “for giving us this opportunity.”

“We have an incentive to work the with other partners to get more bang for our buck,” Bessen said. “It’s too early to say whether we can pull it off—whether we can not be selfish,” she added with a smile.

A native of upstate Liberty, New York, Bessen came to Atlanta to attend Emory University when a friend enrolled there. Bessen earned both her undergraduate and law degree at the school.

“I didn’t even want to be a lawyer” to begin with, she said.

After joining the bar in 1987, Bessen served as an associate at what was then McGinn, Webb & Warner before starting her own firm, where she mainly handled personal injury plaintiffs’ cases.

Bessen’s husband, criminal attorney Steven Weiner, was a friend of then state court Chief Judge Charles Carnes, who suggested she seek a position as a part-time magistrate. For six years she served in the Fulton court and in the City Court of Atlanta.

In 2002, Gov. Roy Barnes appointed her to the state court, where she has served unopposed ever since.

Bessen said that, unlike several other state court judges who have sought appointment or election to the superior court, she has never considered moving.

“I like the civil cases,” she said. In the superior court, “you’ve got felony cases and family law cases—I’m not interested in those. I like complex civil cases; medical-malpractice cases are very meaty. It’s a great mix: two weeks of civil cases with high-end lawyers, then two weeks of criminal cases, and I enjoy those, too.”

Bessen is also an adjunct professor of law at Emory, where she teaches medical malpractice and pretrial litigation.

“It’s a good way to stay in touch with up-and-coming attorneys,” she said, adding that she is particularly gratified when a former student handles a case in her court.

“I’m like a proud parent when one of my students appears before me,” she said.

Bessen said she’s appreciative of lawyers who reach beyond their own interests to assist others in need.

“On occasion, I will have a criminal calendar and someone will come before me without an attorney,” she said. “I’ll have one or two lawyers stand up and say, ‘I’ll speak to him, your honor.’ That warms my heart.”

Asked what advice she would give to lawyers appearing in her court, Bessen hesitated a moment.

“It’s kind of frightening to have to say this, but I’d like them to be honest,” she said. “I understand we all have lives, and they’re all doing their best, and sometimes things don’t happen like they should.”

But “if you’re honest with me about why it didn’t happen, why you weren’t prepared, I’m much more amenable than if I get a story and find out later it’s not true,” she said.

“When I teach at Emory I tell my class, ‘You can’t understand how important your reputation is.’ I may not remember the hundreds of good attorneys who appear before me, but I will remember the one or two who misbehaved,” Bessen said.

I like the civil cases. [In the superior court,] you’ve got felony cases and family law cases—I’m not interested in those. I like complex civil cases; medical-malpractice cases are very meaty. It’s a great mix: two weeks of civil cases with high-end lawyers, then two weeks of criminal cases, and I enjoy those, too.”

—Diane E. Bessen, chief judge, Fulton County State Court