Judge W. Louis Sands was the first African-American to serve in a host of legal roles: assistant district attorney for the Macon Judicial Circuit, assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, superior court judge in Bibb County, and district court judge and chief judge for the Middle District of Georgia.
But Sands says his goals was simply “to do the best job I could do” in each step.
On the bench since President Bill Clinton nominated him and the Senate confirmed him in 1994, Sands has handled a wide range of cases—concerning students wearing T-shirts with the Rebel flag, hospital purchases, elections, open courtrooms and a host of crime and punishment matters, including the prosecution of executives held responsible for salmonella poisoning caused by peanut butter.
Sands graduated from Mercer University law school in 1974. He took senior status from the bench in 2014.
What has changed for the better, and what has changed for the worse, since you joined the bar?
The legal profession, especially in Georgia, has changed considerably since 1974. Overall, the change has been for the best. The bar is not only larger in size, but it is far more diverse. It now reflects the state’s population more than it ever has before. I think this growth has increased access to legal services, and the bar itself is stronger and more representative as a result. Technology has also resulted in fundamental and significant change in the legal profession since I joined the bar. However, the development of technology and its use by the bar has also contributed to some problems. Lawyers are less likely to know each other and are even less likely to meet the same opponent again in later litigation. Since people tend to be more civil to people they know and with whom they have frequent contact, the fewer professional acquaintances and less frequent contact do not promote civility as much as in the past. Lastly, although technology has brought a great deal of efficiency and speed to the practice, it has also added to the stress. Instant communications allow less time for thoughtful consideration and reflection.
At your portrait unveiling a few years ago, Judge Clay Land called you a pioneer for being, among other things, the first African-American to serve on the federal bench in the Middle District. As you decided to pursue law as a career, did you consider you were embarking on a pioneering path?
Chief Judge Land’s comments were very kind. However, I must admit that I began my career with the clear understanding that I had to do the best job I could do. I did not want to let down my family, my community and all those who supported me in so many ways over the years. I did not want to let myself down either. The rule of law, justice, equality and fairness were paramount to me. I felt that doing the best job that I could for my client, whether it was the state, the United States of America or a private citizen, with those high ideals always in mind was the best contribution to the law that I could make. Those were the things on my mind and of concern to me. It was only later that I realized how many so-called “firsts” I had the privilege, honor and opportunity to engage in.
What is one of your proudest accomplishments in the law, and what challenge did you have to overcome so you could to achieve it?
One of my proudest accomplishments in the law was probably my most challenging. About six months after joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I was assigned to a criminal case that had been under investigation for the previous four years. The case involved many federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. It was also being investigated as a RICO case with the approval of the Department of Justice, which at the time strictly controlled authorization of such investigations. The investigators described many of the subjects of the investigation as members the “Dixie Mafia.” Potential local witnesses were virtually nonexistent for fear of retribution against themselves and their families. Secrecy and confidentiality were absolutely necessary.
The key target, who had eventually become aware that he was a possible subject of the investigation and who also apparently felt he was beyond the reach of the law, actually came to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and directly challenged U.S. Attorney Lee Rampey in front of me and the assembled investigators. “If you got something on me, put it on me. If you don’t, get off my a**,” he dared. I remember witnesses’ safety was of such a concern that an FBI agent and I relocated witnesses in the middle of the night before the first day of trial. The safety of all involved was a real concern.
Ultimately, after carefully reviewing the case we had developed and the recent law, I convinced the investigators, the U.S. Attorney, and the Department that traditional non-RICO charges could be just as effective without some of the then-unknowns with respect to the developing RICO case law. We were successful. That was the only case in which I clearly felt and understood that not only my legal skills but my personal courage were being fully tested.
That was the case that was the most challenging from a personal perspective. However, from a career view, my appointment to the federal bench was my greatest accomplishment. I believe the summary of my previous career experience made it possible for me to be considered for such a privilege and honor.
What advice do you have for someone who needs to handle a crisis?
A crisis can often appear bigger and more acute than it is in reality and true effect. When one is personally involved or is the subject of crisis, it is even more difficult at first view to accurately assess the situation. Therefore, my first suggestion would be to stop and take a deep breath. That helps to prevent thoughtless and unhelpful responses and overly reactionary actions. Then, as objectively as one can, identify the problem, the options and possible solutions. If at all possible, before taking action or making a final decision, discuss the matter with someone whom you trust, whose opinion you respect and who will be forthright with you. It is likely she or he will help one to focus more clearly, as well as provide invaluable advice or suggestions. That person, in view of the confidentiality afforded, might well or should be a good lawyer. Lastly, be prepared to act and take responsibility. The consequences of doing nothing are often far greater than the original problem. It is far better to face the problem promptly with the benefit of good advice.
What part of legal practice should younger lawyers pay particular attention to if they seek to have success like yours?
Younger lawyers should pay particular attention to performing their legal work competently, with integrity and to the highest standards of professionalism. They should also seek good mentorship. I believe they should have a clear idea of why they chose the law. Hopefully, the reason was more than large fees. I have nothing against lawyers doing well financially; they deserve that for their hard work and expertise. However, the unique role that lawyers play through the legal representation of others places a great and unique responsibility on lawyers. The law in skilled hands committed to the high ideal of equal justice under the law can (and does) make a real and positive difference for individual citizens and society at large. In order for the rule of law to have legitimacy and the respect of those it affects, it must be fair and just. I believe lawyers so devoted are recognized for that dedication and as a result are entrusted to provide and protect justice.