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Gwinnett chief took road less traveled
As Gwinnett County's first new Superior Court chief judge in 14 years, Melodie Snell Conner doesn't fit the typical judicial mold.
She's the first female leader of the Gwinnett bench, and she broke the county's gender barrier when she was previously appointed to magistrate, state and superior court positions. Her early background is in private practice criminal defense instead of the more common government prosecutor path toward becoming a judge.
She enjoys her job, and she doesn't mind when people say she's wrong.
"If I don't get it right, I have no problem with the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court correcting it because I know whenever I put pen to paper or announce a decision in court, I'm trying my darnedest to do the right thing," Conner said. "If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, and somebody should tell me that."
Her unpretentious attitude will guide her as the public face of the court, a job she starts Jan. 1 after current Chief Judge K. Dawson Jackson retires. Conner was elected chief judge by a vote of the superior court bench, taking over a post Dawson has held since 1999.
Conner, 51, said she expects she'll face challenges as she advocates for the court to the Gwinnett County Commission and seeks to integrate technology across the county's multiple courts, the clerk's office, the district attorney's office, the solicitor general's office and the sheriff's department.
"I'm a glutton for punishment. What can I say?" Conner said. "It wasn't like I had a burning desire to become chief judge, but I like being involved and I care about what I do."
She'll push for upgrades including e-filing, Internet document retrieval for the public and a reduction of paper filings between judges, police, prosecutors and the clerk's officegoals she supported as former chairwoman of the Gwinnett County Integrated Criminal Justice Information System project.
Police should be able to see outstanding warrants and criminal histories from their patrol cars, she said.
She also wants to expand teleconferencing between jail and courtrooms for probation revocation hearings, a system she instituted because the county lacks enough criminal-capable courtrooms. She said she'll try to get three or four more judges on board.
Undergirding these ambitions is a common sense approach to her job. When Conner oversees cases in court, she combines humility and small-town common sense, said criminal defense lawyer Christine Koehler of Koehler & Riddick.
"She has the absolute worst poker face in history. When someone says something that makes no sense on the witness stand, she's the first one to show it," Koehler said. "She's willing to make very difficult and often unpopular decisions, whether it's throwing out a conviction or reversing a prior decision. Those aren't things that a judge wants to do, but when it's the right thing to do, she's known for making those tough calls."
That doesn't mean Conner isn't hard on criminals; rather, it means Conner gives everyone a fair hearing, Koehler said.
Conner said she prefers criminal cases over civil litigation and domestic disputes, and she reads up on advance sheets of recent decisions from appellate courts.
"I hope that I'm known as a judge who's fair and who's honest and who's intelligent and who strives to do the right thing," Conner said. "I don't do things out of spite or try to second-guess somebody or inflict my own will on how things should be."
Conner, a member of the Snell family that founded Snellville, was the first person in her immediate family to become a lawyer, and her parents didn't attend college. She hated her first year of law school at the University of Georgia, but she didn't want to quit.
She worked in private practice until 1991, when Gwinnett was growing quickly and needed more judges. There were nine judicial appointments made that summer, and all of them went to white men on a bench that was already made up entirely of white men.
"I don't think anyone was actively discriminating or was prejudiced. They were just choosing the people they knew," Conner said.
A group of female lawyers got together for lunch to decide what they could do about it, and several women said they would back her if she sought one of two newly created magistrate positions, she said.
Governor Zell Miller appointed her and Valerie Elbaz Head the next year following interviews with the Judicial Nomination Commission, and he tapped her to serve on state court the next year and superior court in 1998.
"We're still underrepresented, and Gwinnett County is a very diverse county when you look at its race and ethnicity. It takes time for those members of the bar to become well known and established. ... I think members of the minority bar know they have a fair shake, they're not going to be discriminated against, and they can win it like anybody else."
Conner is friends with defense lawyer Walter Britt, who she worked for between her second and third years of law school and has known since she was a baby. Britt has served as her campaign chairman during Conner's election campaigns, although she's never been opposed.
Conner said she takes joy in seeing Britt and District Attorney Danny Porter "go at it" when they fight in her court.
"She's ruled against me and she's ruled for me. She's given me some sentences I didn't like and some I did like. That's just the way it is," said Britt, of Chandler, Britt, Jay & Beck. "She's heard me out in everything, and she's always been fair. That's all you can ask."
Conner, a seven-year breast cancer survivor, said she plans to remain on the bench for a few more years, but she won't stay indefinitely.
"I'm probably not one of those people who will be here until I'm old and decrepit," Conner said. "I love being a judge. It's fun, most times."