As three of Gwinnett County's most senior judges prepare to leave the bench, they're departing a bustling judicial system that they saw grow from makeshift courtrooms in a furniture store and a movie theater to one of the busiest jurisdictions in the state.
Members of the bar gave judges leading three of the county's court systems a "Hail to the Chiefs" send-off during a reception and ceremony last week honoring Superior Court Chief Judge K. Dawson Jackson, State Court Chief Judge Robert Mock Sr. and Probate Judge Walter J. Clarke.
The judges are retiring after a combined 70 years on the bench.
Jackson told the crowd of more than 100 lawyers gathered at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce that he and his colleagues had worked to make Gwinnett County an accommodating place to practice law as its population and case load has boomed.
"All of our judges will help you. All you've got to do is ask," Jackson said in his remarks. "If you have the word 'emergency' written on your papers, your case will get heard."
The judges reminisced about the '70s and '80s, when they held court in odd venues including a furniture store, the stage of a renovated theater, a post office and a jail's holding cell because the county lacked enough courtroom space.
The county has grown so much that even the giant Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center, built in 1998, is running out of courtroom space.
Gwinnett County grew from 167,000 residents in 1980the year after Jackson took office as a state court judgeto about 825,000 last year, according to the U.S. Census.
"Back in the '70s, we had court in so many places you needed a city map," said Mock, who joined the bar in 1976 and became a state court judge in 1991. "It was a strange place to practice law. … I've enjoyed every day of it."
Today, the Gwinnett Judicial Circuit is the third-busiest in the state when measured by the number of dockets filed per year. There were 24,567 dockets filed in Gwinnett last year compared with 26,574 in DeKalb County and 31,454 in Fulton County, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.