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Comic Book and Children’s Book Author Greg Burnham

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Appearing at MomoCon Memorial Day Weekend 2024

Greg Burnham, a Norcross-based comic book and children’s book author who is attending this month’s Momocon over Memorial Day Weekend, spoke with Rico Figliolini this week. They talked about his recent contributions to comic anthologies Milestone Initiative (featuring Icon), Ghouls Just Wanna Have Fun (featuring Superman), and DC Power 2024 – and, his latest children’s book, Swim, Kelly! Swim! They also talked about collaborating with artists, crafting compelling characters, feedback from beta readers, and the evolving landscape of diversity and representation in comics, stressing the importance of authentically empowering marginalized voices to shape narratives.

Related Links:
MomoCon Website: https://www.momocon.com/
Greg Burnham Facebook:   / gregburnhambooks  
Tuskegee Heirs
Children’s Books

Timestamp:
00:00:00 – Greg Burnham: Comic Book and Children’s Book Author
00:02:25 – Collaborative Indie Comics Creation
00:04:51 – Crafting Captivating Visual Narratives
00:06:53 – Learning the Publishing Process
00:07:56 – The Story of Solace: A Collaborative Comic
00:09:41 – Crafting a Spooky Superman Story
00:12:48 – Navigating Creative Collaboration
00:14:53 – Balancing Indie Work and Deadlines
00:16:55 – Coaching Basketball and Crafting Characters
00:18:56 – Crafting Authentic Characters: Balancing Inspiration and Individuality
00:21:05 – Crafting Complex Characters
00:24:35 – Navigating Diversity and Stereotypes in Comics and Media
00:29:57 – Unreal Engine 5 and the Blurred Lines of Reality

Podcast Transcript:

Rico Figliolini 0:00:26

Hi, everyone. This is Rico Figliolini, host of UrbanEbb. And I have a great guest today, Norcross comic book children’s book author Greg Burnham. Thanks for joining me, Greg. Appreciate you being here.

Greg Burnham 0:00:40

Thank you for having me.

Rico Figliolini 0:00:42

Yeah, no, this is great. This is like, you know, I love, I’ve loved comic books since I was ten years old or younger. Mainly Marvel. DC also a little bit, but Marvel was always my best. And then graphic novels as I got older and they got into trends. But we have Greg here. He’s been an author, writer for quite a bit for a couple of decades. Right.

Greg Burnham 0:01:05

I think about it, well, a little bit over a decade. I started with the children’s books. I’ve been writing my whole life. Professionally, like a little over a decade.

Rico Figliolini 0:01:16

Okay. Okay. Well, we’re going to talk a bit about that. What got you into this and stuff? So we’re the. So let me just say that we’re ahead of MomoCon. That’s going to be coming Memorial Day weekend. It’s actually running four days, May 24 through the 27th. Greg is going to be at that. This is why we’re interviewing him also. So looking forward to meeting you in person, possibly when I come out and visit, it’s going to be at the Georgia World Congress center. It’s considered the largest gaming event in the southeast. But, you know, like any of these, there’s artists alleys, there’s all sorts of things going on in cosplay. There’s a lot of things going on at MomoCon. So it’s going to be an interesting four days. So I’m looking forward to it. I’m sure you will be, too. What days would you be there, Greg?

Greg Burnham 0:02:03

Oh, the entire time.

Rico Figliolini 0:02:05

Okay.

Greg Burnham 0:02:06

MomoCon is. It’s one of our, it’s our, one of our home conventions, obviously, but it’s also one of my favorite. So, yeah, we’re there the whole time, actually.

Rico Figliolini 0:02:18

What are you going to be doing? Where can people find you?

Greg Burnham 0:02:21

No, we’re going to be in the artist alley. And I would have to search. I just show up. But I think they told us our tables. I want to say it’s like, 304.

Rico Figliolini 0:02:32

No, that’s fine. But artist Alley, you’re going to be in, so that’s cool.

Greg Burnham 0:02:35

Artist Alley yeah. So I’ll have. We always have books, posters, other light stickers, some different knickknacks. All the books we’ll be talking about today, I’ll have. And then also, I know I’m doing at least two panels, but it could be more.

Rico Figliolini 0:02:55

I’ll see if I can find those. And I’ll put that in the links below. So whoever’s watching on YouTube, I mean, you can find it there or in the show notes if you go, if you’re visiting the website. So Greg has been doing a lot of indie comic hits that he has under his belt, but he’s also doing work with DC and Marvel. So why don’t we get you to tell us? And by the way, I just recently didn’t get a chance to read a check because it just came in this afternoon, just got one of these. So looking forward to going through that. Tell us a little bit about, I guess let’s talk a little bit about how you got into this. I mean, it’s a challenging job, right? You’re writing. It’s not like a novel. This is collaborative work. So what does that work? How do you do that? How do you handle it, man?

Greg Burnham 0:03:46

It’s usually fun. I think the toughest part is fine. Like, when you’re doing it on the indie side, it’s finding people that are reliable and fun to work with, people that are passionate. Like, as a writer, I always want to deal with artists. I want to make sure that they’re having fun, you know, doing it. So I’m always like, what do you like to draw? Like, are there certain things you think you’re better at? So, you know, once you get, you know, the team together, it’s a blast. It’s just like any other team, really.

Rico Figliolini 0:04:19

I would imagine also for you, envisioning what your characters look like, do you give that input to the artist? Do they give you sketch?

Greg Burnham 0:04:29

Yeah, definitely. The cool. So Marcus Williams, who’s my co creator and the artist for Tuskegee years, he and I, we’ve been working together for decades, you know, like, doing stuff artistically and business wise, so I can, it’s easy for me to, you know, convey it to him. Like, what the character look like this. Give him a couple examples, and we’re good. But then when you’re working with other artists, it’s like, you have to be, like, really, really descriptive. Try to, you know, I’m. I’m the guy. Like, I’ll pull up examples, like, stuff on Google. You know, like, this is the hairstyle you know, this is, you know, the body type even. I do that with, like, backgrounds and scenery sometimes. Like, this will be a cool shot, you know. So trying to help them out as much as possible. And it makes the process a lot more efficient too.

Rico Figliolini 0:05:28

Yeah, I would think. No, that’s great. I do that with photographers sometimes. I show the pictures what I think it should look like and then I tell them and then give me what you think you’re thinking it should look like as you’re there. But, but, yeah, no, that’s great that you’re given direction like that because worst thing to do is getting, is drawing stuff, then all of a sudden having to shift from that.

Greg Burnham 0:05:50

Yeah.

Rico Figliolini 0:05:51

So you’ve, you’ve been some of these. So tell us some of the creator owned properties, some of the indie stuff that you’ve been doing. What was your, so what was your first one? Was it Tuskegee airs? Oh, yeah.

Greg Burnham 0:06:03

Comic wise? Well, the way it started, I’m sorry.

Rico Figliolini 0:06:09

Okay.

Greg Burnham 0:06:09

I just got back in town, so please forgive the coughs. Yeah. It started with a book. I always have props at my desk, this book, you know, 20 years ago, over 20 years ago, Marcus and I and another friend, Nicholas, who we created this, but we had no idea what we were doing. People were loving it. People were buying it. We didn’t understand the business side at all. So we had to kind of, we were printing them up at Kinko’s.

Rico Figliolini 0:06:37

Yeah, we did.

Greg Burnham 0:06:41

Yeah, we did everything ourselves. And, like, people were buying it. They were buying it heavy. But we were spending so much money to produce a book that it wasn’t lucrative at all. So we had to kind of step back and kind of learn the business. So I did a couple children’s books. Marcus illustrated those, and then he got in on a comic book called Hero Cats. And he was doing the art for that for a while. But the whole time we’re, like learning publishing, we’re learning comic conventions, you know, who to talk to print wise, all those things. So when we did come up with the idea for Tuskegee airs, we felt confident that we knew how to execute.

Rico Figliolini 0:07:30

At that point and get it printed. I’m assuming you got it printed yourself. It looks great. Great.

Greg Burnham 0:07:35

Yeah. So we used a really good printer out of Canada that prints for, like, the big guys as well.

Rico Figliolini 0:07:42

Okay. Okay.

Greg Burnham 0:07:43

So all that stuff, you know, it’s like learning as you go.

Rico Figliolini 0:07:47

I could tell from the quality. And it’s just I’m, I’m in a nut when it comes to graphics and printing and stuff like that. So I can appreciate the quality that went into this. So you’ve done that. You’ve done the search for SDK Sadika?

Greg Burnham 0:08:03

Yeah.

Rico Figliolini 0:08:05

Little Rock files and. Little Rock files and the story of solace. Yeah, I guess.

Greg Burnham 0:08:13

Yeah. So, like, the story of solace, that’s was my brother’s idea. He wrote. He’s had this idea for a long time, and so I just kind of, you know, kind of guided and helped him, you know, making it into a comic because he had written it in prose and. But we always thought it would be a comic. So we have one issue of that. We’re working on the second one now.

Rico Figliolini 0:08:40

Just the Kickstarter we were talking about before. Is that different?

Greg Burnham 0:08:43

Yeah. Well, we did a Kickstarter for that last year. We may do one for the next book, but we’re trying, like, we like to try to have the book finished or have it really close to be finished before we do a crouch one.

Rico Figliolini 0:08:58

Yeah, yeah, no, I can’t imagine because otherwise things will take longer then. And that’s. So I can appreciate that. You’ve done three comic book, three comic anthologies last year, 2020.

Greg Burnham 0:09:10

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Within the last twelve months. One of those was in February. I did DC power, which is like their black history anthology. This is one of the covers. I like the prompts and would. Oh, yeah, I keep props. And so I got to write a mister terrific story. I was super happy because I snuck and brought him to Atlanta. Nobody said I couldn’t do it, so I did it.

Rico Figliolini 0:09:39

But Atlanta’s famous. Yes.

Greg Burnham 0:09:41

Yeah, but, so, yeah, that one was really cool. And then in October, for their Halloween anthology.

Rico Figliolini 0:09:51

Right.

Greg Burnham 0:09:52

They changed the names of these every year. I don’t think I have that one over here, but I did. Ghouls just want to have fun. It’s an anthology.

Rico Figliolini 0:10:03

I think I’ve got. Hold on a second. Let me just bring that up. I think it was this. Maybe that’s not quite the COVID Yeah, that’s the.

Greg Burnham 0:10:12

That’s the main cover right there.

Rico Figliolini 0:10:14

Okay.

Greg Burnham 0:10:15

And, yeah, I got to write a clean page Superman story for that one. Like this. It’s like a spooky. It’s not super extra spooky, you know?

Rico Figliolini 0:10:28

Okay, so how does that work? You have an, you have your own ideas of what you want to do, but now you have this icon, Superman and. Yeah, they’re giving you. I know they’re not giving you totally free reign. I’m sure you got a protective brand maybe, but.

Greg Burnham 0:10:44

But, yeah.

Rico Figliolini 0:10:45

How do you handle that? How do you do that when they give you something like that and you go flying.

Greg Burnham 0:10:50

So I think it’s part, I mean, I think for all us nerds, like, if we’ve been reading comics and movie, watching the movies and everything, I feel like you always think about, like, what would I do if I got a chance to tell these characters stories? So I just, I wanted, like, with this one, I wanted to tap in. I mean, I’ve been watching Superman for my entire life in some way. So I wanted to kind of tap into the stuff that I loved about Superman. You know, I loved him and Lois’s interactions and, but I also wanted to tell, like, something. It’s like there every, there’s so many stories. So I was just trying to figure out a way to do something unique. And I think I did that. It wasn’t like it was a ghost, huh? Yes. Well, that even that description they gave is kind of sort of, but not all the way I used, you know, I wanted like a ghost because, you know, you think about who, you know, they say Superman is susceptible to magic. So I figured like a ghost, you know, like, what can he do if he can’t actually make contact with him, you know? Yeah. So, yeah, but it was cool because for these little one off stories, it’s like canon is not, you know, end all, be all. So they’re kind of like, it doesn’t have to, you know, be, you know, perfectly in canons. They made it easier. But there are still, like, there’s a lot of things that you, you know, you have to get, I wouldn’t say approval, but more so, like, certain things they’re not going to really do with Superman versus others.

Rico Figliolini 0:12:38

Okay, well, fun anyway, I would imagine. And I’m sure you got on your stuff.

Greg Burnham 0:12:43

I just, the whole time I’m working on it, I just, you know, have to keep pinching myself. Like, this is Superman.

Rico Figliolini 0:12:53

Okay, so you’ve done that. DC Power 2024. You’re talking a little bit about that milestone initiative. There are other artists that are in there. Do you get a chance to, when you meet other artists, other writers, other creative people, do you guys share notes? Do you like to shop talk?

Greg Burnham 0:13:18

I like to talk more. Not necessarily in general, but we talk about, like, creating one thing I’m always careful of because it’s like we, you know, you soak up so many things subliminally that sometimes something that you heard or you’ve seen could come out accidentally in your own, like, I’ve plenty of times where I come up with an idea and I’m like, oh, this is gonna be great. And I have a rule, like, I’ll come up with the idea. Usually I wait for, like, a couple of weeks, and then I come back and revisit it.

Rico Figliolini 0:13:50

Uh huh.

Greg Burnham 0:13:51

And when I revisit it, I’m like, oh, no, that’s nothing but new skin on this story. Yeah. So I try to, like, you know, keep it more in general, like, about creating stuff like that than sharing notes on what we’re creating.

Rico Figliolini 0:14:10

Gotcha. I’ve heard authors, like, best selling authors and other writers, they don’t accept anyone’s manuscript for that reason.

Greg Burnham 0:14:19

Yeah.

Rico Figliolini 0:14:19

Or unsolicited scripts, for that matter. That could be a problem, too, I guess. You know, when you’re balancing creative work, your, your independence and publishers expectations. Right. There’s two different things. We talked about that a little before, just, just before about how it’s easier to do your own stuff because you’ve set your deadlines. You can pick the quality of work, people to collaborate with, but sometimes that may not be the case on the other side of that, where you have publishers expectations, you have to work with people maybe you’re not familiar with.

Greg Burnham 0:14:56

Yeah.

Rico Figliolini 0:14:57

How does that work? Is that fun or can that be challenging?

Greg Burnham 0:15:02

For me, it’s fine. So a little bit more about me. Like, I coached youth sports in, you know, Norcross, and I’m not doing it currently, but I did for about 15 years. So I think that one of my strengths is being able to bring people together and figure out how to work with people, you know, in a pleasant kind of way where we’re all moving in, you know, the same thing. So I think I utilized some of that, but I’m, when you’re doing indie stuff, it’s like, typically, you know, there’s going to be a little bit extra leeway, you know, whereas, like, if you’re working with one of the major publishers, it’s like, the deadline is this day and that’s all there is to it. If you can’t have it by this day, they’re going to get somebody else to do it, you know?

Rico Figliolini 0:15:55

Yeah.

Greg Burnham 0:15:56

Yeah. So it’s like just trying to figure out balance. Not to be like a tyrant, but also to be like, we still got to make sure we’re getting it done, so, but it’s, it’s fun. I love collaborating, especially with artists. Love it.

Rico Figliolini 0:16:12

Yeah. I got to believe that you see your stuff visually being rendered is as a whole, that got to be a whole different feeling. Right. You’re writing it, you have it in your head, but that artist is rendering what you’re hopefully pulling out of your head you want. But it’s a whole, it’s almost like me seeing AI art sometimes it’s not the same thing, but, you know, you type in some words and AI will generate a picture. Right. It’s never quite as good as everyone says it is. That’s for sure. I’ve experimented and trust me, it’s. But that’s what you see on Instagram, I guess. But the, so I’m sure it’s exciting to see the rendering of what an artist produces for you.

Greg Burnham 0:17:00

Absolutely.

Rico Figliolini 0:17:02

I was curious, what sports did you coach?

Greg Burnham 0:17:05

I coached mostly basketball. I did baseball some, but it was mostly basketball.

Rico Figliolini 0:17:12

I like the way you were phrasing it before about moving in the right. Sort of in the right. In the same direction or something.

Greg Burnham 0:17:17

Yeah.

Rico Figliolini 0:17:18

Getting parents move with you to just competing.

Greg Burnham 0:17:21

Yeah. So, and it’s like if you, if you can do that, you know, coaching twelve, you know, adolescent boys, then, like, you could do a lot of things.

Rico Figliolini 0:17:33

Yeah. Yeah, I would think. And, you know, that’s, that also brings up something else in my mind. When you’re, when you’re writing stories and you have five characters, and then I’m sure some of them are your most favorite characters. Right. More favorite one. How do you know, you have to decide these darlings, how much time they get on that page because you’re not, you know, and do you, it’s just a, that’s an interesting thing, too, to decide that. Well, what is your favorite character or two that you’ve written?

Greg Burnham 0:18:03

Oh, man, I don’t know, because, like, I mean, I love the Tuskegee heirs. Like, it’s like they’re, all of them are like your kids, all the stories. So I love Sadaka from the search for Sadica. I just don’t want to say one’s my favorite and then the other characters attack me in my dreams. But, like, I’m doing this book now called Little Rock Files. It’s like a eighties noir detectives story takes place in the south. And the main character, Owsley, I love, I also love his little sidekick Tia. She’s good. Good fun. So I don’t know, it just kind of depends on the day, I think.

Rico Figliolini 0:18:50

Do you ever, do you ever base these characters on people, you know?

Greg Burnham 0:18:55

Absolutely. So one of my things is so sometimes. So, like, with Tuskegee heirs, I have two kids, Marcus has two kids. So four of the kids are named after our actual real life kids. Now, we, I don’t necessarily, we didn’t, we modeled their look a little bit after them, but their personalities aren’t necessarily the same. But I. One of my things that I want to do, because it’s like, I love creating characters, but I want them to feel, like, organic. I write a lot of female characters, and so I definitely take inspiration from people I know. You know, it could be somebody I went to elementary school with, but I just take those inspirations because I’m always careful. I don’t want characters to be empty and feel like, you know, like, you ever read a comic where you’re like, okay, this sounds like a dude trying to sound like a woman or trying to, you know, I don’t want to be one of those. So I really try to get in. Like, I’m working on a book right now with four girls, superheroes, and I finished the first, you know, like, my first iteration of the script, and I was like, I need to add more, you know, like, depth and more emotional personality to them.

Rico Figliolini 0:20:23

Yeah. Some background, different language. I mean, you want that voice to be individual, right?

Greg Burnham 0:20:29

Yeah. It’s like, I want, like, all your main characters, I want to make sure they have, like, a voice, like, their own distinct kind of way.

Rico Figliolini 0:20:38

So. So the flames of destiny, the first character that I find slip, and he just doesn’t listen. He just wanted to do his own thing. It seems like she pays someone with the kids.

Greg Burnham 0:20:49

No, actually, he’s our. He’s our lone, you know, completely out of thin air guy.

Rico Figliolini 0:20:56

Oh, okay.

Greg Burnham 0:20:57

So, yeah, but he, you know, like, he provide. Like, he’s. People love him. Like, fans all over the place really, really love him, but he’s, you know, got some. He was kind of created to add, like, the, you know, comedy, but he’s also feisty. And as you go, you know, we’ll get more depth and stuff behind him, and readers will understand why he is, you know, how he is.

Rico Figliolini 0:21:27

So do you work through the writing process when you’re doing this? And you said, like, you did the first. Everything goes through drafts, I guess. And you want to continue to add voice and complexity to a character when you’re doing this, do you ever decide. Do you ever decide that maybe a character is not the right character and you have to change it?

Greg Burnham 0:21:52

Yeah. So, yeah, sometimes it’s like I’m hyper vigilant. I utilize sensitivity readers. I have some really good friends that will say, hey, man, this is some crap. Go back to the drone board. Good. They’re not mean people, but I tell them, I want you to talk to me. You know, like, yeah. So usually by the time they actually, like, we get into the scripting and everything. I’m pretty cool. I’m pretty sure, you know, but up until that point, yes. Like, plenty of people get cut, are changed altogether.

Rico Figliolini 0:22:31

Okay, cool. So beta readers and just other people giving advice, that’s a tough thing to find, people willing to give honest advice.

Greg Burnham 0:22:38

To the ones without ego. Like, one of my friends, she’s a really good writer, and she was telling me recently a story about, she gave to one, you know, had a beta reader, and this lady, like, ripped her apart. It’s like, you know, this book doesn’t need to be made. Like, and really, she already has tons of fans. And when she releases the book, it hit, you know, it’s breaking all these sales records and stuff. And it’s like, you know, so you want people that are going to give you, like, the kind of that raw opinion, but not the one with the ego behind it, like, better than you like, because there’s so many, you know, like, readers like different stuff, you know? So just because it doesn’t sit with you doesn’t mean it’s not going to resonate with its intended audience.

Rico Figliolini 0:23:31

You almost have to have thick skin when you get these things back.

Greg Burnham 0:23:34

Yeah. Like one, I think for me, like, one of the things, like, whatever the criticism is, I’m usually okay with it because whatever I showed you in that book, I, it was 100% intentional. It’s, you know, there’s not a lot of, like, ooh, how did that get there? You know? Okay, so I’ve had people that like the way you did, you know, whatever, but then they read the next issue and they’re like, oh, okay, I get why you do. It makes more sense.

Rico Figliolini 0:24:05

So it’s like, yes, they gotta wait. They gotta live through the. Live through it. Yeah, no, for sure. I mean, sometimes the backstory comes out later. Right. You wanna give it all at once when we talk about. We talked a little bit before we start about diversity and representation, right. In works, it’s changed over the years. Diversity is a little better now. Certainly better now. I mean, even in probably the sixties and seventies, it wasn’t too much of a stereotype. Although, you know, that’s one of the things you got to worry about, or other writers have to worry about. Stereotyping people does. You don’t mean to. And sometimes the stereotype is meant, right. As a comic, it’s a comic turn or something. Maybe we’re being used in a way, but it’s not long lived in a character. Right. How do you handle that. How do you do, you know, with, with especially this industry. I mean, when you think about comic books, when people think, well, not today, but before comics, comic books was very white, you know, I mean, up until about sixties and seventies, and then there was some diversity that came in. Not a lot, but some black panther, Luke Cage or a bunch of them got more. So, as, you know, X Men came in. So that was supposed to be a thing about diversity, of accepting different people. So. But there’s a lot more indie. Well, there were indie authors back then, too, indie comics, I remember, but, but there’s a lot more now than there were before. And some of them get tv shows, too. So it’s becoming a bit more. A bit more profitable or lucrative to be able to do some of this stuff. Do you see yourself trying to get into, breaking into that, you know, multimedia, just the print?

Greg Burnham 0:25:56

Yeah, definitely. As we go, we’ve had some near misses with certain stuff, but it’s definitely a way that we, you know, would want to move to where because, okay, so with the diversity, it’s like they’re starting to realize that. And I’ve heard this from, like, execs at, like, major publishers, they’re starting to realize that diversity isn’t just putting a character, you know, like, you know, different character in, it’s allowing people to tell their, tell these stories like people, you know, so, you know, instead of dropping a black character in a book, it’s like, allow a black person to tell the story, because that’s when it’s like, you start really getting into diversity representation with stereotypes. If you’re not even aware of all the stereotypes, then, you know, yeah, you might hit one here or there. So it’s good. Like, for us, we want to do, you know, we’d love to get into animation. We’re working on a little bit of animation right now, but we would love to work on a lot of bit. But, you know, it’s very expensive. Our thing is we, we would love to be, we want to be able to kind of guide it. We already know if somebody gives you, you know, millions of dollars to make a cartoon, sure, they’re going to have, you know, the power and, you know, but we want to at least be able to keep it on the rails because we’ve seen so many times, like, I think about teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which I, you know, we loved the iteration that came, you know, to animation and everything, but it’s so much different than what the comic was and what the creators I be, you know, what their, you know, dreams about what it would be. It’s just, it was a lot different.

Rico Figliolini 0:28:01

Yeah.

Greg Burnham 0:28:02

And that was, you know, that was an instance where it still was super successful and lucrative, but you can talk to, like, a lot of creators who, like, man, they took my idea and made it terrible, so it flopped in.

Rico Figliolini 0:28:18

Yeah.

Greg Burnham 0:28:19

You didn’t get to control it.

Rico Figliolini 0:28:20

So I think. I think a lot of times when Netflix or other companies get into that, they’re just making more vanilla to just be able to reach a broader audience rather than niching it down, because, you know, it’s telling it, I think telling the stories of, from a diverse background, like you said, you don’t just drop in an indian or a black woman or Hispanic into a story. It needs to come out of their story. Right. It just needs to be. It’s more authentic that way. It’s more interesting. The storytelling is way more interesting to me when it comes out that way then, than someone. I can’t write a black story. Right. I mean, I can’t. Having diversity in the creative process is important, so. And things are becoming better. Animation is actually becoming cheaper and cheaper to make because of digital, all the digital movement that’s going on right now. So it’s gonna be. Give it another five years, you’ll be able to make your animation. 30 minutes show.

Greg Burnham 0:29:24

Yeah, it’s coming. Like, we. We were, we were awarded a bit of a grant from Epic Games to do, like, unreal engine short.

Rico Figliolini 0:29:36

Yeah.

Greg Burnham 0:29:36

So.

Rico Figliolini 0:29:37

Really?

Greg Burnham 0:29:37

Yeah. So we’re working on that. And something else that you might be able to see. We have something cool that we’re going to be. Hopefully we’re going to be dropping at Momocon, so.

Rico Figliolini 0:29:48

Yeah. Okay. I’d love to see that. Unreal engine five. That’s the last one that came out. That last version. It’s unbelievable. It looks so real.

Greg Burnham 0:29:58

Yeah.

Rico Figliolini 0:29:58

That you’re stepping into a place that’s just like, my God, you want to be afraid that something’s going to scare the death out of you.

Greg Burnham 0:30:05

Right? I just watched the planet of the apes, the new movie.

Rico Figliolini 0:30:10

I didn’t get a chance.

Greg Burnham 0:30:12

Half the time. I’m like, that’s unreal engine right there. That’s unreal engine. Like, it’s. It’s, like, almost seamless. Like, you can’t.

Rico Figliolini 0:30:21

Yes.

Greg Burnham 0:30:21

Yeah. Like, I can tell because we’re working in it right now, but for, you know, that most people.

Rico Figliolini 0:30:28

Well, I think. No, most people can. I mean, unless you put a person in it, then it becomes these nuances that.

Greg Burnham 0:30:36

Yeah.

Rico Figliolini 0:30:36

That you sort of figure that’s there’s something not quite right there, but I can’t wait for them to do more VR work because unreal engine five can do in real time renderings. I believe, as you. As you move through a story, it’s just so much technology. You can’t even tell what’s real or not anymore. If you’re like the Matrix, almost.

Greg Burnham 0:30:57

Yeah. So. Waiting for this?

Rico Figliolini 0:31:00

Yeah, sure. I’m just tell us the. So you have another book that you’ve done. So we’ve been talking about graphics and comic books. But you did swim, Kelly. Swim truly?

Greg Burnham 0:31:12

Oh, yes.

Rico Figliolini 0:31:13

Very different. So I want to make sure you tell us a bit about that, that, you know, what. What went into that, why you did, why you wrote that one.

Greg Burnham 0:31:22

So, so far, I’ve done three children’s books. Every one of them was based off of, like, an experience from my childhood. And of course they’re based, but I, you know, will make it more fantastic and all that stuff. But this one was a story that actually happened with my brother. And I taught my brother how to swim when he was way too young. So, like, by the time he’s, like, three, he can swim for. So we were at the pool. We’re military kids, and so we were at the pool, and I probably should have been paying more attention to him, but I knew he was good. He was supposed to be in the kiddie pool. And so I look up and there’s a lifeguard blowing. They’re all blowing their whistles, and they’re yelling, get down. And my brother is standing there on the high dive getting ready to jump, and he’s nine years old, and so they’re yelling, telling to get down, he gets down. And at the pool had a rule where in order for you to jump off the diving boards, if they felt like, you know, you were like, it was like you’re in danger, they would make you swim all the way across the pool in the deep end. So it’s like 10ft, you know, you gotta swim across. So I convinced them to let us do it. They let me swim beside him, you know? Cause it’s like my mom will, you know, disown me if something happens to my brother at the pool. Yeah. So, you know, we swam, and it was just fun because, like, the people, like everybody, it’s like people got out of the pool and everybody’s just cheering for him. His name is Kelly. It’s totally real. So. So I told that story, but then I also added, like, little things, you know, about swimming. The goal was to like, demystify swimming. So if, you know, it’s funny because I’ve had adults that are like, man, this is for me, you know, because people, people want to learn how to swim, but, you know, the older you get things like swimming, they seem like, that’s not real. I can’t do that. My body can’t do that. So that was the goal, is to kind of demystify it a little bit to where, you know, kids will understand. If you learn how to do it, you believe in yourself. You could be a great swimmer like Kelly.

Rico Figliolini 0:33:43

So it’s a great cover, too. Yeah.

Greg Burnham 0:33:47

My friend Michaela Moore, she’s an absolute jewel. I met her at a comic convention, and, you know, we, like, this became, you know, like, we would see him all the time. She’s younger, so it’s like we always try to, you know, not necessarily mentor all the time, but just encourage. And one day I was like, hey, have you ever done a children’s book? She’s like, sure, I’ve done one, and we ended up with this one.

Rico Figliolini 0:34:16

That’s cool. It’s good to work with people. We’re at the end of our time together. Greg, it’s been, yeah, it’s been great talking with you about your work, about the business. I love talking shop, finding out how people are creative and doing stuff. So you’re going to be a MomoCon this Memorial Day weekend, all four days from May 24 to May 27 at the Georgia World Conference center. And you’re going to be at artist alley and some panels from what you said before. So we’re going to try to find those links to the panels. Get that there. Otherwise, if you’re looking to go to MomoCon, everyone, momocon.com is where you should go. Buy your tickets. You could get day tickets weekend. I think it’ll four day passes also. It’s going to be a great event. Artists like Greg there and say, hi, especially if you’ve seen this podcast. But thank you, Greg. Appreciate you being with us.

Greg Burnham 0:35:16

No problem. Thank you for having me.

Rico Figliolini 0:35:19 Thank you, eve

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Elections and Politics

Regina Matthews in Run-Off June 18 for Gwinnett Superior Court Judge

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This run-off election decides who will serve on the court.

Magistrate Court Judge Regina Matthews is a candidate for the upcoming June 18th runoff election for Superior Court Judge in Gwinnett County. Regina discusses improving court efficiency by setting deadlines, utilizing magistrates and senior judges, virtual hearings, digitizing processes, and maintaining accurate records. She also discusses challenges like housing insecurity’s impact on crime, accountability courts, and public engagement. The Run-off is Tuesday, June 18th. Host Rico Figliolini.

Resources:
Regina’s Website: 
https://judgematthews.com/

Timestamp:
00:00:00 – Magistrate Judge Regina Matthews on Local Politics
00:01:19 – Importance of Voting in Runoff Elections
00:04:17 – The Varied Responsibilities of Superior Court Judges
00:07:22 – Strategies for Reducing Court Backlogs
00:11:29 – Adapting Court Proceedings to Virtual Platforms
00:14:00 – Addressing Housing Insecurity to Reduce Recidivism
00:17:17 – Housing Scarcity and Mental Health Challenges in the Court System
00:20:19 – Navigating Limited Resources in the Justice System
00:21:59 – Challenges in the Court System: Lack of Resources and Prioritizing Treatment 00:26:32 – Increasing Awareness of Available Services
00:27:51 – Embracing Law Enforcement: Building Community Ties
00:30:20 – Balancing AI Benefits and Risks in the Legal System
00:33:33 – Continuing Accountability Courts and Upholding Judicial Integrity
00:37:09 – Serving with Integrity as a Judge

Podcast Transcript

Transcript:

Rico Figliolini 0:00:01

Hi, everyone. This is Rico Figliolini, host of Peachtree Corners Life, a podcast that talks about politics, culture and all things going on in Peachtree Corners or that affects Peachtree Corners. So I have a great guest today, Regina Matthews. Hey, Regina, thanks for being with us.

Regina Matthews 0:00:17

Thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be here, Rico.

Rico Figliolini 0:00:20

Absolutely. It’s very important, important times here. We just had that primary in May, and you and another candidate are in a runoff June 18.

Regina Matthews 0:00:31

That is correct.

Rico Figliolini 0:00:33

Right. So let me introduce you a little better. Regina’s from Chicago, went to school in South Carolina and ended up here in Georgia going to Emory law school. You’ve been, you live in Lowburn, you have two kids. They both play soccer. You have a dog. You’ve been working actually as a Magistrate judge. And you were appointed by eleven Gwinnett County Superior court judges along with the chief magistrate judge appointed you to this position. I think it was 2020.

Regina Matthews 0:01:02

Correct.

Rico Figliolini 0:01:03

And you’ve been serving in that position ever since. So what I’d like you to do is because most people don’t know what a magistrate judge does, maybe you can tell us a little bit about yourself and what that position actually does. Go ahead.

Regina Matthews 0:01:17

Well, yes, and thank you for that introduction. I am happy to be here. And again, thank you for doing this because I’ll just start off by saying, you know, you mentioned our runoff election, and I know that a lot of people don’t show up to vote in runoff elections historically. So hopefully we will change that. Hopefully people will get out and vote. This is an important election. It is the only county wide election on the ballot. So, you know, if you’re anywhere in Gwinnett, you can vote for this particular race.

Rico Figliolini 0:01:52

Not only that, it’s a nonpartisan race. So what happens here June 18 decides the position does not go to November, does not go into a general election. This is it. If you’re not there to vote for this position between two candidates, you’ve lost your chance to do that. So sorry, I just want to put that out.

Regina Matthews 0:02:12

Thank you for that distinction, because that is an important one. And sometimes people also want to know, like, what ballot do I need to choose in order to vote for judge? It’s on every ballot. Nonpartisan, republican, democratic. But you’re right. If you don’t vote in this runoff, you will miss the opportunity to select who will hold this judicial seat for the next four years. But going back to your question, I do service as a magistrate judge currently in Gwinnett, we have part time magistrates and full time magistrates and there is a distinction in my current role. I was appointed so that I could provide judicial assistance primarily for our superior court judges. But we also, as full time judges, do sometimes sit in our state courts, you know, wherever we’re needed. Juvenile court, probate court, recorders court. We’re sort of the judges that kind of get pulled in different directions. But 95% of my time on the bench is in superior court. So the eleven superior court divisions that I sit for, basically what those judges do, they sign what are called judicial assistance orders. So when a judge meets my assistance, they will issue an order giving me the authority to sit in their courtroom and handle, you know, their caseload. So I hear everything that the elected superior court judges hear. I’ve been designated, I think, at this point two hundred times by our superior court judges. And, you know, we hear primarily family law and felony criminal prosecutions. That comprises about 70% of the caseload in our courts. The other 30% are general civil cases. So it could be anything from an appeal from magistrate court, property tax appeals, unemployment benefit appeals, contract disputes, court actions. I mean, the list is long and extensive, so, you know, but that’s basically what I do every day.

Rico Figliolini 0:04:20

So, basically, it’s fair to say that even though you’re not doing the job of a superior court judge, you’re doing work for them. You’ve been exposed to those cases, you’ve done support work for them, essentially.

Regina Matthews 0:04:36

Correct. That is correct. And what I will say is, you know, it’s an interesting and intense vetting process. When our superior court judges choose, you know, who they want to appoint to these positions, because ideally, you know, they want someone, an attorney who has practiced primarily in the areas that the superior court judges here. So, again, that’s primarily family and criminal. So if you have a background as a practicing attorney in those areas, typically you’re going to be better suited, you know, to serve in superior court. You know, that’s vastly what we do.

Rico Figliolini 0:05:17

And there’s eleven superior court judges in Gwinnett county.

Regina Matthews 0:05:22

That is correct.

Rico Figliolini 0:05:23

And do they handle budgets of the court? Now, do the individual superior court judge handles the budget for their section, if you will, or is it done as consolidated between the eleven?

Regina Matthews 0:05:38

So each of the judges has their own budget, but they are similar budgets, if that makes sense. So it’s not like one judge is going to have a different budget than the other judges. I mean, you have the same amount of money allocated. What happens is, you know, the judges will go to the board of commissioners to make their pitch as to what it is, you know, is needed. So if their budgets need to be increased from year to year, it’s sort of a collective bench decision, or pitch, so to speak, as to establishing what the budget should be. But then the judges have control over the money that’s allocated to them individually.

Rico Figliolini 0:06:20

Okay, so then, so judges are not just sitting on a bench. They’re also doing administrative work. They’re also handling budget requirements and the work through of what needs to be done in a court system, if you will.

Regina Matthews 0:06:37

That is correct. Some of it is administrative, and some of it, you know, I think people tend not to think about this part of the job, but a lot of times, what you’re doing is also, you know, finding out how to effectively manage your cases and, you know, the best and most effective way to handle, you know, disposing of cases in a way that’s responsive, responsible, and responsive to the needs of the people, which is having, you know, efficient resolution of their cases. And so a lot of that, honestly just comes from experience knowing what works and what doesn’t work to kind of move cases along.

Rico Figliolini 0:07:16

Right. So, okay, so we segue into that part of case management, if you will. Not just that, but the backlog, that was exasperated because of COVID I mean, there was backlog before, but it got worse because of COVID So, yeah, so this backlog, case management, how do you handle, what are the strategies that you would use to resolve some of these things? I know from experience, it’s one thing, but what, in effect, would you do to make this better?

Regina Matthews 0:07:47

Right. And I will say, I think that people should know that there are some court divisions that operate without a backlog. People find that hard to believe. And we sort of hear, you know, about this backlog, and it sticks with us, there are some divisions that do have a backlog, but some of them operate without one. I will tell you division five, which is the position or the division that I’m running for. Judge Byers, I will say, and I used to work with her as a staff attorney. So, you know, I know very specifically how she does her case management, but she’s been very effective in scheduling cases. And I always say one of the things you can do as a judge is aggressively schedule cases. And what that means is, you know, when you show up to court and you see a courtroom full of people, that means that judge has probably aggressively scheduled that calendar. So there are some judges who may call in one case or two cases. But if those cases, you know, resolve, and they often do when they come to court, the attorneys talk or the parties talk, and they resolve it right then and there. And then if you’ve only called in one or two cases, for example, then you have the rest of the day gone because you’ve only called in those two cases. So, you know, I think aggressive case calendaring, I think using our mediation services and our courts helps move cases along to resolution so that in many cases, those, you know, lawsuits or disputes don’t even reach us to a trial capacity because they’re resolved earlier on in the litigation. Judges can also issue, particularly in civil cases, case management, or case scheduling orders, which dictate to the attorneys or the parties specific deadlines that they have to meet in order, again, to help move the cases along. Because in some instances, you have cases where motions are filed over and over, and it just prolongs the litigation. But if you give strict deadlines and it makes sure people are, you know, held accountable to those deadlines, again, it keeps the cases moving efficiently. The other thing I think that helps is obviously, courts utilizing, you know, full time magistrates and our senior judges to help manage the cases. There are some judges who use us more than others, but I think anytime you have judges, you know, available who, of course, have been appointed because they have the requisite skills and knowledge to help, you know, hear those cases, I think we need to utilize them. And so those are the things I can think of off the top of my head. And also, I will add, using when you can, technology. We learned, obviously, during COVID that utilizing Zoom video conferencing for some types of hearings can make things move more efficiently as well. Obviously, you can’t do everything on Zoom, but there are some types of hearings that can be handled more efficiently that way.

Rico Figliolini 0:10:51

So let’s stick to the technology for a little bit, because that was a big deal during COVID took a little while to digitize the process, if you will. And now that you have it, you’re right, I can see certain cases itself in court, need to be in court. You need to be able to eye the participants of this. But certain promotions and other things that are administrative motions and stuff can all be done by Zoom, right? Or digital services of a sort.

Regina Matthews 0:11:21

Yeah, I agree. I think when you have, for instance, we hear a lot of motions, particularly in civil cases, where it’s just the attorneys coming to court to argue some issue in the law, and they just want to make a record, you know, to the courts and to argue their position on whatever that legal issue is. And so we’re not hearing evidence. You know, we’re not listening to witnesses. And so those types of hearings, I think, easily could be handled by Zoom or some sort of video conferencing technology. But as you said, other cases, you know, where we are hearing live testimony from witnesses, and we’re receiving a lot of evidence, you know, in the form of documentary evidence, then clearly those are instances in where we need to be.

Rico Figliolini 0:12:08

In person in court, not to get into the weeds. But I just thought about this. When you’re using Zoom like that on these types of things, will it transcribe as well? I mean, do you keep copies like that, even if it’s in a digital form?

Regina Matthews 0:12:25

So what we typically do, and in civil cases, you don’t have to have the case reported, but most oftentimes, the attorneys or the parties want that service. So we have our court reporters available on Zoom as well, so that they can make a record just like they would be able to if they were in court.

Rico Figliolini 0:12:43

Okay.

Regina Matthews 0:12:44

And additionally, you know, lawyers that are really savvy, they’re really, you know, I guess during COVID they became more savvy in how to introduce documents through Zoom, you know, how to share, use the screen sharing function, or how to attach documents as part of the Zoom video conferencing features. So, you know, we’ve worked around it, and I think, again, there are ways we can make it continue to work in order to make sure that our litigants are receiving effective and efficient resolution of their cases, because the last thing we want is for people to wait years unnecessarily to resolve a case.

Rico Figliolini 0:13:27

And I would think it’s easier this way, too, because you’re digitizing everything. You’re keeping files that way. I mean, automatically, I would think. And, in fact, probably within a year’s time, the transcription part can even be done through voice to text versus just having a transcriber there. There’s so much out there. I mean, you all have to, I guess, figure that out all the time. Keeps going. All right, so a couple of the other issues that’s near and dear to you, I think, that, you know, spoken of, obviously, through not just you, but other candidates and stuff. So one of them is housing and security. You mentioned that as a significant issue in Gwinnett county. So how do you propose the court system can address this issue effectively?

Regina Matthews 0:14:14

Yeah, and that’s a tough question. It’s one I struggle with and think about all the time, because I think the issue of housing insecurity sort of leads to other issues that we see in our courts, obviously, you know, people don’t have a safe place to live. It’s going to affect our crime rates. It’s going to affect recidivism. It’s going to affect people just being able to function in our community. So I think it comes down to resources, and that’s really one of the unfortunate practical realities for our courts, is a lot of times we want to, of course, help people. Courts are rehabilitative and to some extent. But when we have individuals who simply don’t have a place to go, for instance, I’m going to step aside a moment and talk about our accountability courts. So we have three in superior court, veterans court, mental health court, and drug courts. And all of those courts, obviously, operate for the purpose of establishing rehabilitative services and treatment services for individuals so that they don’t keep committing crimes, so that they don’t re offend, and so that they can be productive members of society. Those courts can only operate to their full extent if we have the appropriate resources in the communities available. We are limited, and that’s just the reality. So, for instance, when we have individuals who successfully complete one of those treatment programs, and there have been many, I can go on and on about the efficacy of those programs. But what I find is that they sometimes come back not because they’re not taking their medications or they’re not seeing their treatment providers, but it’s because they don’t have housing. So we send them through treatment. They do everything they need to do, but either because of their past or just because of the cost of living, they find themselves back in the courts because they’re on the street. So I don’t know what the solution is, other than really having our communities help us advocate to our legislators, to our commissioners to give us more funding so that we can try to establish appropriate housing in Gwinnett county. There are some places that work with our program that will provide transitional support in housing for people that are in our accountability courts, but it’s only temporary. So once they meet that threshold of time, then they’re sort of left to their own supports and connections to try to find affordable housing. And I know affordable housing is an issue everywhere. It’s not just in Gwinnett county, but for sure, yeah.

Rico Figliolini 0:17:11

I mean, there’s not enough. Everyone wants to go to the higher price tag. Land is becoming scarce, even in Gwinnett county, apparently in certain places. So they want to put as much as they can and still charge as much as they can. So sticking with this, too, because mental health and veterans court as well. Right. Both. Those also are issues that go hand in hand, almost actually, with housing insecurity. Right. And what you’re looking at is support from nonprofits that are helping and doing stuff with federal monies and donations, corporate donations. But it’s a tough track. Right. So how do you, yeah. How do you feel that, you know, with mental health, what is it, 500 prisoners or so in the Gwinnett prison system that probably shouldn’t be there? Many of them they probably should be. They should be treated, obviously. How do you, how does the court system, how can the court system help with that?

Regina Matthews 0:18:14

So again, it’s tough because of, honestly, the truth of the matter is we have limited capacity. And, you know, if you look at places where we send people, for instance, for inpatient treatment, we’re talking about Lakeview, they have about 124 beds. Summit Ridge, they have a little under 100 beds. Peachford, which is all the way out in Atlanta, they have about 250 beds or so. We have way more people that need to be to get inpatient treatment than there are beds. So a lot of times what happens is people sit and wait. So for those people that we know need treatment, and we’re not just going to send them back out in the community without it. We keep them in jail and we try to arrange, there are some treatments that the jail medical staff can assist with while they’re waiting for beds. But a lot of times, honestly, we’re just having people wait for open beds because so many of them, I would say 70% or so, need some type of inpatient treatment. Now, our mental health accountability courts help a lot of people that are sort of not as much of a need of services, if that makes sense. I mean, they’re all in need of services, but to a different degree, because there are outpatient services that our treatment providers offer for those individuals where they can still, you know, live on the outside and work and do those things. But, you know, for those, the vast majority of people who need more intensive help, again, it’s just a matter of having the limited bed space.

Rico Figliolini 0:19:55

Well, not only that, it’s security, too. Right? Secured bed space, because there’s still, they’re still serving time, but they should be serving time in a place that at least will help them get better.

Regina Matthews 0:20:07

That is correct. That is correct. So, and, you know, I don’t know what the answer is. I know, you know, people never want to hear that we’re supposed to have all the answers. But, you know, I sit in court every day and I struggle with that. You know, you want to help people, you know, how important it is for them to get the help they need and to every extent possible, you know, I do that, you know, but when there’s, you know, only a limited number of bed space and the hospitals are saying, we can’t take this person right now, then we just have to do the best we can do. And that is, again, engaging with our medical staff at the jail and with our treatment providers who can come into the jail and offer services while those individuals wait. But, you know, otherwise we’re relying on, you know, what we have.

Rico Figliolini 0:20:58

Right, right. It’s a struggle, I imagine, because it’s almost like the sports industry here in Gwinnett county, right. We can only get certain amount of sporting events that the hotel system can support. Right. And then we have to turn away events because maybe there’s not enough space during that time. Same thing with jails. Right? To a degree, if you want to make that comparison, it’s like, I’m sure that you all have to figure out, well, you know, we have. We hit capacity. You know, where can, you know, can we, you know, put more prisoners into the system when you fix the capacity? You know, and I don’t know if we’ve actually hit that capacity yet or. Not hit the capacity for. To have occupancy in a system like this. You know, do we have enough?

Regina Matthews 0:21:44

I think we have. I mean, I can tell you as someone who not only sits in our superior courts, but who also presides in the absence of the judges who preside over our accountability courts. You know, I sit in those courts as well, and I’m very intimately familiar with how those treatment courts operate. And I can tell you that we are at capacity and we want to take in more people, but the practical reality is we don’t have the resources. And that is the. It’s really, it’s sad for me. It’s one of the most heart wrenching things as a judge to know that someone again needs help and they either have to wait in order to get it or we just have to come up with another solution.

Rico Figliolini 0:22:34

So going to that, I mean, obviously there’s so many challenges. This is one of them or several of them that we’ve just discussed. Are there other challenges you see in the court system that you would like to attend to?

Regina Matthews 0:22:49

I think those, honestly are the biggest challenges. Those are the ones that I’m confronted with every day. People who need assistance and treatment for trauma or substance use disorder or they need housing resources. Again, I don’t really notice a backlog that a lot of people refer to, because I think if you talk to lawyers who practice in other areas outside of Gwinnett, they will tell you Gwinnett handles cases way more efficiently than some of the other jurisdictions. So I think we do a good job of utilizing the resources we have by way of, you know, full time magistrates and our senior judges. I think we do things well. We use our, you know, alternative dispute resolution resources to a great extent. I think that helps us in that regard. So I think overall, we do things well in Gwinnett, in our courts. But again, I do think, you know, we have to prioritize with our money, you know, having more resources available for, you know, people struggling with substance use disorder or mental illness or a combination of both. We have a lot of people who are dual diagnosis. Right. So they have substance use disorder and mental illness, and a lot of times are housing insecure. So they obviously need a lot more resources, and that all falls struggle.

Rico Figliolini 0:24:20

Yeah. How do you see the role of the judiciary system when it comes to educating the public about the legal system? Their rights is all that falls hand in hand with what we just discussed, I think because sometimes the legal system can take the easy way out because it must, because there’s no other way to do. To do it at this point. Right. So what do you think the role is of the judicial system here as far as education, educating the public?

Regina Matthews 0:24:48

I think it’s important. You know, as a judge, I want people in our community to feel like they are knowledgeable about our courts. They sort of know where to go when they need to file a particular type of case. I think we as a judiciary, can do a better job of putting information out there that is available to the public. We have taken a lot of strides in Gwinnett in our courts. I will tell you that there are, particularly for magistrate court, our chief magistrate, Christina Bloom, she keeps brochures in the magistrate court office that is available to people, anyone who walks in. They can get a pamphlet on landlord tenant issues, you know, in those cases and how they’re handled and sort of the issues that come up in those cases, small claims, you know, basically step by step. I don’t want to say instructions because we can’t give legal advice, but we do give people resources. Like, this is where you can go. Our courts also operate a family law clinic. So for individuals who may want to represent themselves or maybe they. They don’t have the money to hire an attorney and maybe they don’t qualify for legal aid, they’re sort of stuck in the middle. There are resources available because of the goodwill of some of our attorneys who volunteer their time to do clinics to help people sort of navigate those processes. So we have information there. I think we can do a better job about making sure people know that the information is out there so that they can utilize it.

Rico Figliolini 0:26:25

That’s interesting. I didn’t know about that.

Regina Matthews 0:26:28

A lot of people don’t.

Rico Figliolini 0:26:29

Yeah, yeah. No, that sounds like another good podcast, actually.

Regina Matthews 0:26:33

So great idea. As a great idea, I wish more people knew about those types of services, and it’s just a matter of figuring out how do we get that message out to people.

Rico Figliolini 0:26:44

Yeah, it’s not easy. And then to get people to listen, actually, too, because they may not need it at that moment. Until they need it, right.

Regina Matthews 0:26:53

Until they need it. Yeah.

Rico Figliolini 0:26:54

Yeah.

Regina Matthews 0:26:54

The other thing I tell people, too, you know, I think people are generally afraid of courts or maybe they’re just apprehensive when it comes to, you know, courts. And so I tell people, don’t always think about it in a negative way. I encourage people to come out and observe court proceedings, you know, when you can. I know most people have full time jobs, so that may not be feasible all the time, but, you know, courts are open forums, so if you want to come and observe a divorce trial or, you know, a criminal trial or whatever type of trial, you know, come to court, observe, see how, you know, things go. And I think that might help prepare people, too, better for, you know, you know, the times that they have to come to court and face that same situation.

Rico Figliolini 0:27:41

It’s funny, I think people think of court system like the IRS. Just stay away and don’t go near it.

Regina Matthews 0:27:47

That’s right. People don’t want to come anywhere close if they don’t have to. I get that. I get that.

Rico Figliolini 0:27:52

Although I got to say, the Gwinnett county police do a great job when they do ride alongs. That, depending on how you do that program, even some of the local small town like Suwannee, I think, in Duluth do similar type of things where you can go with the police and see their normal day, if you will.

Regina Matthews 0:28:08

I love those programs, too, because, you know, our law enforcement, I also think that they sort of get that reputation of, you know, like, we don’t want to deal with law enforcement unless we need them. Right. Like, we stay away, you know, and I think we have to embrace, you know, our law enforcement officers as, you know, our friends. You know, they’re here to help us. They want to protect us and keep us safe. So I’m so glad, you know, so many of our police chiefs have taken the initiative to really be present in the community, you know, for reasons outside of, you know, crime, safety and prevention. But just so that people know, you know, they’re friendly, they’re neighborly, they want to, you know, you know, help us, but also be, make sure that we know that they’re part of the community to help and not just to get the bad guys, for sure.

Rico Figliolini 0:28:59

Right, right. Yeah, true. And a lot of them do a good job that way. We talked about technology before, but I like talking a little bit more specific about artificial intelligence, AI, and what that means in a court system or in preparing court documents or in having to worry about evidence that may be submitted that could have been tainted by AI. So what, you know, what do you think are the potential benefits and drawbacks of using AI in the court system?

Regina Matthews 0:29:35

Yeah, admittedly, you know, it’s a discussion we’re having to have more often. Even some of our continuing judicial education classes are starting to talk about this issue. And candidly, it scares me a bit because I’m just trying to imagine a court system whereby human intelligence is replaced by artificial intelligence. I mean, just the thought of it is a little alarming. I do think that there are ways in which AI can be beneficial. You know, for instance, when you’re an attorney or a judge, you know, or a law clerk who’s working for a judge, and you want to find information about a specific case or a legal topic, you know, doing research could be, AI could be great because it could make you more efficient and getting the answers you need. But I will say, as a caveat, there has to be a human, I think, sort of checking that. So even if you use it for research purposes, it is still artificial intelligence. So I would like to think that we would still need some human to basically double check to make sure of the accuracy of whatever information you’re getting. So I think there could be some benefits for efficiency when it comes to operating in a courtroom setting, though I’m more afraid of AI than I am of welcoming of it, because I foresee issues where we’re presented with evidence, for example, and we have to test the credibility or veracity of that evidence. And again, there’s just no substitute, I don’t think, for human intelligence as opposed to AI. And I think about the floodgates opening up with even court filings and us getting backlogged because of AI and something other than human filing court documents and how that could just really cause a backlog.

Rico Figliolini 0:31:34

You’re worried about more filings happening because it can be generated faster through AI.

Regina Matthews 0:31:39

That is correct. That is correct.

Rico Figliolini 0:31:42

I mean, certainly AI has issues, and I don’t, you know, as fast as it’s moving right now, who knows? In a year or two, probably less than two years, I bet based on what’s been going on in the last two years, we’re going to end up being able to. If you have someone that doesn’t speak the language, that can be translated through the system, Google does that right now. The Google Translate, right. And voice, you can have real time fact checking occurring where you can look at, you know, place it to chat, GPT 7.05.0 when it comes out, where you could check those facts. So there are certainly good side to it, but as fast as that’s moving, the bad side can move just as fast.

Regina Matthews 0:32:29

I can say, yeah, I agree, it’s troublesome. And because I guess we’re not sort of there yet, it’s hard to really appreciate how. How much of an effect it will have on our courts, whether a good, you know, good or bad, because, like you said, it’s happening so quickly, it’s almost hard to grasp. But, yeah, it’s gonna be here, if it’s not already, we’re gonna have to confront it. And. And it does give me some, some. I don’t know, I’m concerned a little bit.

Rico Figliolini 0:32:59

Well, it’s good that you all are getting education on it, right? Continuing education, if you will. So that’s a good part, that it’s being proactive, at least.

Regina Matthews 0:33:07

Yep.

Rico Figliolini 0:33:08

If you were to win the Gwinnett County Superior Court judgeship, what do you think, in brief, would be your long term vision for it?

Regina Matthews 0:33:17

So I will say, first of all, I’m the only candidate in the race who has unequivocally indicated that I will, without question, continue the accountability courts that Judge Byers started. And particularly those accountability courts are veterans treatment court and mental health accountability court. She is the only judge currently sitting on the bench who operates those treatment court programs. So once she resigns her seat at the end of this year, those programs could effectively go away. And so I have made an unequivocal promise to continue on with those programs. Honestly, I can’t imagine our courts not having them. So that is the first thing I will continue her legacy. You know, she started those courts. I think we just celebrated the 11th year, and so I want that to be, you know, a long term program, both of those to be long term programs that Gwinnett can be proud of forever. So I promise that I foresee a court whereby litigants feel that Judge Matthews is fair. She’s even handed, she’s even tempered. She may not always issue a ruling that I agree with, but I will trust that Judge Matthews has followed the law, you know, above all else, and that she treated me with dignity and with respect. You know, I was a practicing lawyer for a long time, and I remember appearing in front of judges who, I don’t know, seem like they would make sport of humiliating litigants or humiliating attorneys. I’m sure. I mean, you probably have seen or at least heard of those types of judges, and it was just troubling to me. And I, you know, said a long time ago, if I ever became a judge, you know, I will never be that type of judge where, you know, someone comes in and they have, you know, an issue that’s important enough to them to either file a case or be involved in whatever the litigation is. But, you know, people deserve to be treated with dignity, no matter what. And I include, you know, people who are charged of criminal offenses. You know, obviously, we don’t condone criminal behavior. I don’t like it. But those people deserve to be treated with dignity at the very least. And so that’s what people will get from me, judge, again, that’s going to be fair. Who’s going to operate independently, who is not going to be swayed, you know, politically. Who’s really just going to follow the laws, as I’m bound to do, the constitution of the state of Georgia, the constitution of the United States, and the laws passed by our legislators.

Rico Figliolini 0:36:03

Okay, well, thank you for sharing that vision. We’ve come pretty much to the end of our talk. But what I’d like you to do is give us, in short, two minutes, maybe ask for the vote, essentially tell everyone why they should be voting for you and ask for that vote.

Regina Matthews 0:36:23

Thank you, Rico. And, you know, I have to tell you lawyers, you probably know this. Lawyers and judges are not good with time limits. So I hope I can do the two minutes. If I started to go over, just stop me, because we’re not good at keeping time out. Yeah, put your hand up or something. But again, thank you for this opportunity. I take being a judge as something that is meaningful. It is difficult work. You know, the decisions that I make, that we make as judges every day, you know, we realize that they impact people in very significant ways. And so what I can tell the voters is that’s not something I will ever take for granted. You should vote for me not only because I have a deep concern and care for the people of this county, not only because I currently serve the county, but also because you need a judge and you deserve a judge who has the experience to do the job and to do it on day one. As I talked about earlier, I currently sit in superior court every day. At this point in my judicial career, I’ve made decisions, probably I want to say hundreds, but it may be even close to thousands of cases. This point I’ve done so diligently. I’m a judge that operates with the utmost integrity, and you don’t have to just take my word for it. I’ve been tried, vetted and tested, so to speak. The eleven superior court judges that you elected and the chief magistrate judge you elected in Gwinnett county have already vetted my qualifications. They wouldn’t designate me to sit for them over 200 times if they didn’t believe that I was suitable to do the job of a superior court judge. And that is what I do every day. I make a commitment to the voters that I will continue to have deep respect for the rule of law, I will always follow and adhere to the rule of law, that I will operate with integrity, and that I will do everything to make sure the court processes run efficiently. Thank you again, and I hope to have your vote. You overwhelmingly supported me in the primary election. I hope I can get you back out to vote for the runoff. You can find more information on my website at judgematthews.com, I’m also on social media Regina Matthews for superior court or judge Regina Matthews. I’m on LinkedIn. I’m on Instagram. I’m pretty much all the social media platforms. But again, I just hope the voters can remember that, you know, you need and deserve someone who has the experience doing the job. And I’m ready on day one.

Rico Figliolini 0:38:59

Great. By the time people hear this, early voting, I think will have ended. So June 18, Tuesday is the day.

Regina Matthews 0:39:06

Tuesday, June 19. That day you have to go to your assigned voter precinct for early voting. Obviously it’s different, but on June 18, you have to go to your designated polling place, seven to seven.

Rico Figliolini 0:39:22

Thanks for that. So thank you, Regina Matthews. Appreciate you being on with me. Hang in there for a minute, but thank you. Everyone else. If you have questions, certainly put it into the comments. Whether you’re listening to this on Facebook or YouTube, or you have comments that you want to send directly to Regina Matthews, just go to her website, judgematthews.com, and you’ll be able to do that. So thanks again. Appreciate you being with us.

Regina Matthews 0:39:48

Thank you, Rico.

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Elections and Politics

Tuwanda Rush Williams in Run-Off June 18 for Gwinnett Superior Court Judge

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This non-partisan run-off election decides who will serve in the seat

The Tuesday, June 18th run-off election for Gwinnett Superior Court Judge is almost here. In my interview with candidate Tuwanda Rush Williams, you will find out why she is running, her plans for mental health issues in the inmate population, why transparency and responsibility are important to her, and how she will rebuild trust in the judicial system. Tuwanda discusses the role of technology in modernizing the court system, the need for more lawyers to provide indigent defense services, and the importance of judges being visible and engaging with the public to build trust in the courts’ fairness and impartiality. With your host Rico Figliolini.

Resources:
Tuwanda’s Website: https://www.tuwanda4judge.com/

Timestamp:
00:00:00 – Tuwanda Rush Williams Runs for Gwinnett Superior Court Judge
00:01:15 – From New York to Georgia
00:03:54 – Improving Mental Health Care in Jail
00:07:50 – Addressing Mental Health in the Justice System
00:11:21 – Improving Court System Efficiency, Addressing Indigent Defense, and Leveraging Technology
00:15:53 – Balancing Technology in the Courtroom
00:18:06 – Concerns About AI in the Courts: Lack of Empathy and Transparency
00:22:15 – Ensuring Impartiality in Judicial Decisions
00:25:38 – Canine Incident Leads to Lawsuit
00:29:55 – Employing More Senior Judges to Clear Backlog
00:32:13 – Qualifications Beyond Being a Judge
00:35:29 – Tuwanda Rush Williams’ Campaign Resources and Endorsements

Podcast Transcript

Rico Figliolini 0:00:01

Hi, everyone. This is Rico Figliolini, host of Peachtree Corners Life, and we have an election coming up. It’s actually a runoff June 18, and I have one of the candidates for one of those runoffs, which is the candidate for Superior Court Judge here in Gwinnett County. Tuwanda Rush Williams. Hey, Tuwanda, how are you?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:00:20

Hello, Rico. How are you?

Rico Figliolini 0:00:22

Good, good. Appreciate you spending the time this afternoon coming out to speak to us and answer questions and talk about your candidacy. So appreciate you doing that. Absolutely.

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:00:35

Thank you for the opportunity.

Rico Figliolini 0:00:37

No, for sure. And I think our readers and followers enjoy this type of thing. We just did one for the school board race, district three, and I got good responses on that. They enjoyed that, learning a bit more about candidates that are running. So why don’t you. Why don’t we start off Tuwanda with you telling us a little bit about yourself and tell us why or what motivated you to want to run for Gwinnett Superior Court Judge.

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:01:05

Absolutely. Thank you. So, my name is Tuwanda Rush Williams, and I have been a resident of Gwinnett county for about 24 years now. Quite a while, I guess. 2000 is when we moved here, beginning of 2000. And I’m originally from Rochester, New York, but I have been in Georgia for the last 32 years, so I consider myself a Georgia peach at this point. But I am married and I have. My husband is doctor Anthony Williams. He is a retired Gwinnett county public school systems assistant principal, and he is also an army veteran. And we have two adult children, one who is in pharmacy school at UNC Chapel Hill, and the other is a youth college and young adult minister and an information technology specialist at Cox Enterprises. And so I’ve been practicing law for 31 years, a long time, most of that time here in Gwinnett county working for Gwinnett county government, and for the past year working at the law firm of Thompson, O’Brien, Kapler and the Sudie in Peachtree Corners. So why am I seeking this position? Simply because of what I observed in my 18 years working for Gwinnett county government, I rose to the position of second command. So I was deputy county attorney in the county attorney’s office, and I represented all 5300 employees, which included the district attorney, the clerk of court, the solicitor general, the sheriff, the tax commissioner, and the judges on all six courts. So I spent a lot of time at the Gwinnett county jail, and what I saw were the large number of persons with diagnosed mental illness sitting in the Gwinnett county jail. When I left the county in May, of last year in order to run for judge, and I had to leave my job because it was a conflict of interest to run for judge when I defended the judges when they were sued. When I left the county, there were 500 people with mental illness, diagnosed mental illness sitting in the jail. They tend to be socially isolated. They require around the clock observation. They are a higher suicide risk, and they require a lot of manpower resources. Because of that, there were another 2200 inmates in the regular population who were pretty much on their own, neglected. They were getting showers one day a week. It was very difficult for them to meet with their lawyers to prepare for their cases to go to trial. They also did not have much recreation time simply because there was not enough staffing to manage the 2200 regular inmates and simultaneously take care of the 500 inmates with mental illness of some type. So one of the reasons why I decided to run is because I don’t want to see people with diagnosed mental illnesses sitting in the jail awaiting trial. They don’t get better sitting in the jail. They need to have alternative custody arrangements. They need to be able to be in a mental health facility, or they need to be at home with counseling services, therapy services, medication stabilization, and a case manager while they are awaiting trial. And what I see in the county right now is that we have accountability courts, but they need to be expanded, and judges need to put a request in their budget to expand those courts so that we have a place to put people who have been charged with a crime but are not good candidates for being locked up in our jail. So I would like to see judges not send people to jail that have mental illness, but also send them to places like a viewpoint health, which is inadequate for staffing purposes. Right now they only have 16 beds. So we need to actually advocate in our court system for more money to take care of those with diagnosed mental illnesses as opposed to sitting in the jail.

Rico Figliolini 0:05:42

So for most people that don’t understand, they might think Gwinnett Superior Court judge is just a sitting judge listening to cases, felony cases, family law, divorce, child custody. But it is more as well an administrative role, deciding budgets and personnel. Right?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:06:01

That is exactly true. Superior court judges have a budget just like any other county department or state department, and they actually, they will go down to the Capitol and advocate for various issues as well that impact the court system. And one thing you said, Rico, that I want to follow up on. Most people think of superior court as criminal felony cases and family law cases are heard there. But did you know that there are a large variety of matters that are also heard in superior court that I handle over the last 19 years as a government lawyer, such as your property tax appeals, condemnation cases, inverse condemnation cases, elections lawsuits, civil rights lawsuits, contract disputes, all kinds of declaratory judgment actions, stormwater issues, things that people don’t really think about that are heard in superior court. And you would only have experience in those areas if you have been a local government lawyer, such as myself.

Rico Figliolini 0:07:11

You’ve been doing this for 31 years. Practicing here in Georgia.

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:07:17

Yes, practicing in Georgia. 31 years. I practiced most of my career in Gwinnett county. So the last 19 years I worked here in Gwinnett, 18 years in the county attorney’s office, rising and promoted to second in command, and for the past year, working at Thompson O’Brien law firm, where we represent the city of Norcross, Bryan county and some other municipalities, doing a variety of work.

Rico Figliolini 0:07:47

So, getting back to a little bit about that budget, about the mental health issues, which is a challenge, a rising challenge. Obviously, like you said, mental health issues, putting people into prison doesn’t make them any better. They don’t have the programs there. But in everything, everything costs money. Someone says to me, oh, can we just do this? Well, everything costs money, and you’re just adding to the bill. So that’s one thing that costs money. Then you have other things that cost money, whether you don’t have enough staff to be able to do the things you need to do and all that. So, understanding you want to lobby for money, understanding that you have a finite budget right now, what would be the first thing you do when you, if you were to win, to attend to those mental health issues? What is one of the first things that you would do in there? Knowing that you have a finite budget, you know, you don’t have anything more coming at that moment.

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:08:49

So the first thing that I would do as a judge is I would look for opportunities to sentence those with a diagnosed mental illness to arrangements that are not in our jail custody. So if they were a candidate to be able to be at home with counseling services and case manager, that’s where I would send them while they were awaiting trial, as opposed to putting them in our jail, because that would be the first thing I would do, is I would look for opportunities to send people who’ve been accused of crimes to their home environment, as opposed to putting them in the jail, which is a place where they’re just not going to get better and there’s just not enough resources. But then after I looked at who would be a good candidate for being home because everyone can’t be home with a diagnosed mental illness. Right. Then I would look for opportunities to advocate for the budget for a superior court to be expanded such that we can maybe take monies from some other area. Right. We have a mental health court. We have a veterans court. We also have a drug court. But the mental health court is where we have the greatest financial need simply because of the number of individuals who are coming through the court system with a diagnosed mental illness. So I would look at those other two courts to see if we could reallocate funds from those courts to the mental health court so that we could expand the budget to take care of those people. Viewpoint. Health will take individuals who do not have insurance or who are underinsured, who have a diagnosed mental health condition. The problem is that they only have 16 operable beds, which is just not enough, which shows you that they need to be expanded. They need to have larger facilities, more beds, more staffing. So we’ve got to figure out a way to cut the budget in some other areas in the county and add that money to mental health services.

Rico Figliolini 0:11:08

Let me ask you something. Not that we can solve the issues here, but the jail system is run by the sheriff. Correct? The budget and all that.

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:11:16

It is. It is.

Rico Figliolini 0:11:17

So. And you’re moving with the thought is there’s 500 prisoners that have mental health issues. Obviously not all of them. Some of them are violent criminals that are going to have to sit there. There’s no other place to put them, most likely. Right. So if you’re moving 100 of them out of there, though, maybe. Does it make sense then to look at the jail system and say, okay, they’re spending a certain amount of money per prisoner doing that? I know this is not the norm, looking at budgets from different departments, but shifting money from within a department. Is that a county commission responsibility?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:11:57

It is a county commission responsibility, but the commissioners have to receive a budget from the various county courts and departments in order to set a budget for them. So you are correct. The budget, the overall budget is approved by the board of commissioners, but they have to receive a budget request from the court system as well as from the sheriff so that they can make the right decisions. So you’re correct.

Rico Figliolini 0:12:25

So when you know some of it’s okay. So aside from the mental health issues, which is a big issue, obviously there’s other issues within the system. Covid brought that to light to a degree. Right. And different things were done. Things were done differently a bit because of not being able to meet in person. Some of it’s successful. Some of it, I think, is still continuing. Some of it isn’t. Do you think that technology, the role of technology in modernizing the court system makes sense? You talked before about how individuals can’t meet their lawyers. Well, you know, is that an in person visit, or is that a lawyer that can meet them on a Zoom call? I mean, is there areas that you’d like to see changed, or, you know, within the court system that can be helpful?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:13:18

Yes, there are a couple of things that I’d like to see improve. One thing that we definitely need to improve is the number of lawyers that are appointed as indigent defense attorneys, because we have a large number of persons accused of crimes who cannot afford a lawyer. And so in Gwinnett county, we utilize private lawyers to represent those individuals, and they receive an hourly wage. That program is governed by an indigent defense governing committee, and I served on it for seven years before I left the county. And one thing that I’d like us to do to improve upon that system is to recruit more lawyers who are willing to defend persons who cannot afford a lawyer. What’s happening right now is the courts are backlogged with their criminal cases because there’s just not enough lawyers available to appoint to represent someone accused of a crime. And one thing we need to do is to increase the hourly rate of private lawyers who are able and willing to represent indigent persons. So I’d like to see the county improve the hourly rate for those individuals. Another thing I’d like to see is what you alluded to is greater use of technology. During COVID a lot of the hearings were held by Zoom, and that was great. When you just have a lawyer on either side of a case who has the ability to present information over Zoom, it doesn’t work for trials because you have to have a jury.

Rico Figliolini 0:15:09

And so that probably works best when you have the individual in person, actually.

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:15:16

That is correct. And you’ve got to be able to determine that person’s demeanor and everything else. Right. But certainly we can continue to use technology for a routine motion, for example, you know, a motion to exclude evidence that certainly can be heard using virtual capability. So I’d like to see us continue to use technology for what I consider hearings and very short matters, and maybe even expand upon it, because it worked really well during COVID But much of the use of technology for virtual hearings has disappeared in the last couple of years. The judges, most of the judges, tend to have those hearings in person.

Rico Figliolini 0:16:06

Again, I think from one of the lawyers. I heard also, technology wise, that things are digitized, all the files that are digitized, so it’s easier to look them up. But the other problem with that is, of course, a lawyer can’t go back and check the cartons of files, let’s say, of things that maybe weren’t scanned, because not everything is scanned, unfortunately. It seems so. There’s a two edged sword right there, I think. Right? Yeah. You got to make sure everything scanned or you’re going to. And you’re going to have to still hold the physical evidence for later, right?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:16:50

Yes. Yes, absolutely. That is an issue.

Rico Figliolini 0:16:54

Okay. Do you feel, have you seen as a, as a lawyer, and do you foresee AI being an issue, whether it’s deep fakes or it’s documents being presented that are false documents, for example, do you see AI being an issue, or how would you attend to that technology in the run of the courts?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:17:18

That is a very good question. I have mixed feelings about AI. I think that it would be beneficial to use artificial intelligence for basic research purposes. So if the lawyer or the judge wants to know the statute of limitations for a particular civil case, then AI would be great, because you just simply ask, what is the statute of limitations? You get to answer, it’s easy. What I think is bad about AI for purposes of the courts is that AI is digitized, which means it has no feelings, it has no emotions. Right. So you cannot use AI to determine a person’s individual circumstances or background, particularly when you are making decisions based on family needs, custody arrangements, visitation arrangements, or when you are dealing with someone who has been accused of a crime. Because AI doesn’t have compassion, AI doesn’t have empathy. So I would never want to see a quote unquote robo judge. I think you have to have human beings making decisions and weighing the credibility of witnesses. But I do think that AI could actually speed up the handling of cases from the perspective of staff attorneys who conduct research for judges as well as for the lawyers themselves who represent clients.

Rico Figliolini 0:19:07

Dealing with public trust and transparency. Some are maybe true, maybe not true, maybe just myths, maybe just legends, maybe just people think this is the way the system is and it’s not fair. The reality could be a little different. So how would you handle or improve public trust in the judicial system? Because that always seems to be a negative thing there. But how would you try to improve that?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:19:38

Well, one of the things that I talk about on the campaign trail is the lack of visibility of our judges. And what I mean by that is most people don’t know who the judges are. Most people have no idea what types of matters are heard in each court. So one of the things that I would do to try to improve public trust is to require the judges to be more visible in the community and maybe have something like a. Just coffee with a judge once a month, where you put the judges on rotation so that the public members can come in and ask questions about the process. You know, how do I go about filing a lawsuit? What types of cases are heard in your court? For instance, you may have the probate court chief judge one month, and then you may have the state court chief judge another month, and then the superior court chief judge another month, and then the magistrate court and the recorder’s court and juvenile court. Just because if people don’t feel like they have access to the court system, they are less likely to trust the court system. They’re less likely to see it as fair. But when they are able to interact up close and personal with the judges, then they can ask the questions that they need to ask to feel more confident that the system is fair. So that’s one thing that I would do. Obviously, judges take an oath to be fair and to be impartial at all times. And, of course, they must use good judgment. They’re required to have continuing education, just like a lawyer. So there are things that are mandated by the code of judicial conduct of Georgia that judges are required to do to make sure that they maintain fairness and so that the public can trust that the decisions they make are legally sound and fair, but that’s not seen by the public. So I think we have to have our judges more visible in the community.

Rico Figliolini 0:21:57

Sounds good. To ensure impartiality and fairness in the judicial decisions. I know that, for example, there’s a family that I know that’s trying to get custody of the children of their daughter’s kids who passed away. And, you know, I know that the court system likes to make sure they prove they keep the kids with the immediate family, but sometimes that’s not always doable for a lot of different reasons. Maybe the individual person is not a good steward or caretaker for those kids. How do you, you know, you’re dealing with lawyers presenting cases versus the individuals per se, but how do you deal with that? How do you deal with that impartiality or the empathy that you should have in a case like that because you’re a judge?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:22:53

Well, again, you are relying on the lawyers for each party right to present evidence, and the standard is the best interest of the child. And because that is the legal standard. Depending upon the age of the children, the judge might hear from the children themselves. Right? And of course, if they are age 14, they can choose which, where they want to be, who has custody of them. If they are age twelve, the judge can take that into consideration as well. The judge can literally ask, you know, do you want to be with your paternal grandparents or do you want to be with your biological father? Tell me why. Tell me what your life experience has been to this point. And those hearings are held in camera, which means that the public is not allowed to come in and hear that minor share his or her story with the judge. But that’s one way that you would get at impartiality, which is actually considering what the child or the children want. But remember, you’re relying on the lawyers who represent these parties, who have also taken an oath to present all of the evidence that is uncovered, whether it’s for or against their client. And that goes directly to impartiality in the decision of the judge.

Rico Figliolini 0:24:28

With all the cases that you’ve tried, legal issues that you’ve handled, has there been any significant case or situation that has impacted you in a good way or bad?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:24:43

Well, for many, many years, I tried a lot of civil rights lawsuits, and I tried them in federal court, some in superior court. There’s one case that I tried involving an individual who sued Gwinnett county, as well as several Gwinnett county police officers for excessive force. And it involved an individual had allegedly stolen a television from an apartment complex. Our police was summoned to the scene, and our canine unit came. And in this particular case, the gentleman dropped the television that he was carrying, and he ran. And then he jumped down into a ravine. And our police officer sent the canine to retrieve the gentleman, and he was significantly, he has permanent disfigurement as a result of that. I won the case. I was able to show. Well, the interesting thing is the gentleman sued not just Gwinnett county and the officers, but the gentleman sued the canine, which was the strangest thing. I never had a case where somebody sued the dog, but in this case, he sued, which is insane. I was able to win the case, ultimately. At first, I lost the case trial level, because the judge determined that the use of force was. But I appealed the case to the US District Court of Appeals, and I won the case because I was able to show that the use of force was reasonable because this guy, you know, tried to escape. But the case gave me. I felt like I should have lost it only because I don’t believe that our officers follow proper protocol, because you cannot send the canine in to attack someone until you’ve given the suspect fair warning. And I don’t think that that was.

Rico Figliolini 0:27:18

How long ago was that the case?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:27:21

It was several years ago. I want to say it was in probably 2017, but that was the one case where I felt like we should not have won it. Between you and I, and this guy is now permanently disfigured. But other than that I feel very good about the decisions that were made, and I won 95% of the cases that I ever tried.

Rico Figliolini 0:27:48

And there’s a lot of cases out there. A lot of backlog of cases, apparently.

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:27:54

Yes.

Rico Figliolini 0:27:55

And I know you touched upon it a little bit, but it is a lot of cases out there. Is there any suggestions what you do to clear that backlog?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:28:05

Yes. So, of course, the backlog existed even before COVID but it was exacerbated by COVID, as we know. And that was largely because the courts actually had to shut down for a period of time because it was not out for the presence of the litigants. They had to put up plexiglass in the jury boxes. They had to put up plexiglass in front of the podium where the lawyer or the litigant speaks, and in front of the judge’s bench as well. And after that, the county was running about four years behind on the criminal cases and probably three years behind on the civil cases. And criminal cases legally have to be tried. One of the things that definitely needs to be done more of is greater use of senior judges. We use magistrate judges to handle cases. In fact, my opponent is a magistrate judge, and she handles a lot of family law cases and criminal law cases. She’s not utilized for a lot of the areas that I do, like your property tax appeals and condemnations and stormwater cases and, you know, those kinds of suits, because her background was criminal law and family law. But we need to also employ greater use of senior judges. We use some senior judges, but in order to clear the backlog, we need to use more. These are individuals who have retired from the bench, but they will come back and handle cases for a very hefty hourly rate. Some will say they get paid more as senior judges than they did when they were full time.

Rico Figliolini 0:30:06

Is that what you want to do, though?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:30:08

I’m sorry?

Rico Figliolini 0:30:09

Is that what you want to do, though? I mean, that’s just add to more exasperated. More to the budget, I guess.

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:30:16

Well, I think you’ve got to clear the backlog and so even though it does add more to the budget, they already have the experience to handle those cases because they were judges until they retired. So they can resolve them a lot quicker because they’ve seen the issues before. So I think you want to use more senior judges. They are already using magistrate judges in superior court. They’re not fully using them in state as they can. But superior court does use part time and full time magistrate judges to clear the backlog. And my honest opinion is that Gwinnett county needs more superior court judge seats. We have eleven full time superior court judges and Fulton county has 17. And yet we are the second largest county in the state.

Rico Figliolini 0:31:13

Why is that? A lot more crime?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:31:16

You got to have somebody to advocate for it. You got to have your elected state representatives and your senators to say, we need more full time superior court judges. And we are asking the state. It takes someone to advocate for it. Just 11th position in 2021.

Rico Figliolini 0:31:44

Long time ago and things just got more busier. County is growing. Have we touched, is there anything we haven’t touched upon that you’d like to mention?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:31:56

I just wanted to share my background and experience as opposed to my opponents, because what I found during the runoff was that somehow people think my opponent is the incumbent because she is a magistrate judge. And, you know, I want the voters to know she’s not the incumbent. There is no incumbent in this race. This is an open, nonpartisan seat, which means that our names appear on any ballot that you pull. Because candidates for judge must run nonpartisan, because they should. Because the judge’s responsibility is to follow the law of the state and the law of the land and not interpose his or her opinion or prejudge a case. So my position is an open position, which means there is no incumbent. We are seeking to replace a judge who is retiring at the end of the year. And I also wanted to state that when you are looking for someone to elect to the bench, I think you need to take into account more factors than just this person is already a judge. You need to consider diversity of experience. I know 25 years of the law very well because I was a government lawyer for most of my career. My opponent doesn’t have that background as a lawyer. And there’s a difference between practicing law, being a zealous advocate for someone, and being a judge who considers the weight of the evidence, the facts and the law. You also want someone who has ties to the community. And I have served Gwinnett county for the last 24 years that I’ve been here. I have served on a lot of nonprofits. I’ve performed hundreds of hours of community service, and so I am woven into the fabric of Gwinnett County. I know Gwinnett County. I know its citizens. Im a leadership Gwinnett grad. I’ve worked on several learning day committees on Gwinnett giving girls, nonprofit, hope nonprofit. I’ve been on family promise of Gwinnett. I’ve done a lot. Very active in the Gwinnett county alumni chapter of Delta Sig Pothatus rorty incorporated. So I’m committed. I have a longstanding history of service to the county, in addition to having been in the county attorney’s office for 18 years until I had to resign in order to run. I would hope the voters would consider all of that. And just saying, well, you know, this person’s already a judge. She’s not a superior court judge. Never has been, never been elected. Neither have I. So we’re equal in that regard.

Rico Figliolini 0:34:50

Okay. I think pretty much you’ve given the speech where you’re asking for the vote, so that’s pretty good. So that’s good. That’s what you should be. Because if you don’t ask for it, you don’t get it. Where can people find out more information about Tuwanda Rush Williams? What website? Where can they find you?

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:35:12

Absolutely. My website is tuwanda4judge.com. So it’s spelled like my name. Tuwanda, the number four, judge.com. and there’s all kinds of information on there about me and tons of endorsement. Charlotte Nash is someone who has endorsed me. Many people know who she is as well as the former district attorney Danny Porter. You can find my entire bio, all the places that I’ve worked, all the other reasons why I’m running beyond my concern for the people who are sitting in the jail with mental illness. We need to reduce crime and recidivism. We need to offer better support for survivors of human trafficking in Gwinnett. Huge problem. So I hope they’ll check me out there.

Rico Figliolini 0:36:02

Cool. Well, Tuwanda, I appreciate you being on the show with us and answering questions and talking about the issues that you want to let everyone remind everyone. Again, June 18 is the runoff date. There is early voting, depending when you’re listening to this, and I’ll have that in the show notes as well. The opponent is Regina Matthews. So there’s only two of them. So go listen to the podcast, be out there, Google their names. You should be able to find out more information. Again, Tuwanda, stay there with us for a minute. Everyone else thank you again. Yeah, no, for sure. And thank you again, everyone, for listening. There’ll be more information as well at livinginpeachtreecorners.com or southwestgwinnettmagazine.com. so check that out. Follow us on social media and appreciate you being with us. Thank you.

Tuwanda Rush Williams 0:36:54

Thank you.

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Food & Drink

Sucré: New Orleans-Style Luxury Pastry Shop Opening in Peachtree Corners

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Opening this fall at The Forum Peachtree Corners

Abney Harper, co-owner of the luxury New Orleans brand Sucré, shares her journey into the culinary world. Sucré recently opened its first location outside of New Orleans in Woodstock, Atlanta, marking an exciting expansion. Abney hopes to create a beautiful, magical experience showcasing handcrafted, complex pastries while ensuring quality and consistency. The Forum Peachtree Corners will open this fall, 2024. This interview by Rico Figliolini

Podcast Timestamp (where to find it in the podcast):
00:00:00 – Abney Harper’s Journey
00:01:44 – Sucré: New Orleans-Style Luxury Pastry Shop
00:03:37 – From Law to Pastry: A Serendipitous Journey
00:06:16 – Expanding Sucré’s Presence in Georgia
00:08:09 – From Restaurants to Pastries
00:12:47 – Navigating the Challenges of Scaling a Business Across States
00:15:18 – Navigating Regulations and Expansion Plans
00:17:22 – Expanding Sucré Brand Beyond New Orleans
00:20:08 – Discovering A New Orleans Passion
00:21:24 – Bringing the Essence of New Orleans to Atlanta

Podcast Transcript:

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