Interview with Superior Court Judge Cindy Morris of the Conasauga Judicial Circuit of Georgia

Michelle Barclay:  You are the incoming Chair for the Georgia Commission on Dispute Resolution. Tell us a little bit about your path to this leadership position.

Judge Morris:  Well, the literal path is that I was a commission member and Judge Jane Barwick asked me if I would serve as chairman. The actual path is that I was thrilled to get to serve on the commission. Some people saw more potential than I ever saw in myself because I was just blessed and surprised and honored that they would even ask me to do this. I did have experience as a mediator. I started as a mediator in 1995 and did that until I came on the bench in 2002. So, I’m a big proponent of mediation. I think it’s the best thing ever.

Barclay:  What do you hope to accomplish while in your leadership position? 

Judge Morris:  I’d like to move the state further along toward successful implementation of the mediation rules in domestic violence cases. Implementation of those rules starts in January 2021. I would also like to expand mediation in probate and juvenile courts during my term.  

Barclay:  Has COVID-19 interrupted any of the plans or work of the commission?

Judge Morris:  COVID-19 has certainly presented challenges with training on the new rules for mediating in domestic violence cases, but Tracy Johnson, Karlie Sahs, and staff have done a great job carrying on with remote training, so they/we are still on track with our plans. The impact of COVID-19 on day-to-day mediation varies.  I’ve talked to mediators who have done some mediation on Zoom or other platforms.  The virtual setting can be challenging, especially with the issue of confidentiality. It is more difficult to build rapport without the face-to-face conversation, and you don’t know who’s in the room or off camera taking notes. Successful mediation hinges on confidentiality, and mediators conducting virtual sessions can take additional steps to provide a safe and secure platform for the session. The Georgia Office of Dispute Resolution has published a number of video mediation guides for mediators, attorneys, parties, and court programs and has trained over 1000 mediators to mediate online. Video mediation offers a viable solution for courts to address the backlog of cases as well as for those cases involving issues of domestic violence.

Barclay:  Is every case suitable for dispute resolution?

Judge Morris:  No, that’s why we have rules and guidelines. In our circuit, we have a standing order for Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).  Everything goes to ADR unless there is a reason not to do so and then the parties can come to the court and petition to be exempted from ADR.  One good reason might be that one party has moved away and it might be too difficult for them to come back for mediation.  However, now that we can do mediation remotely (even if not as good as face to face), we may have opened up a possibility of trying to do a remote mediation.   

Barclay: Tell us your best ADR story.

Judge Morris:  When I was a mediator, I had an older attorney that never settled cases in mediation, which was frustrating. He was a great attorney and he was always open to mediation.  The meditations with this attorney would always go well, but we never got to an agreement. Finally, one day I asked him why we never resolved a case in mediation.  This attorney explained to me that he, as the attorney for one party, just did not want to enter into the agreement that day.  He wanted to give his client time to think about it overnight, come back to the office and talk about it before they actually did the agreement. I was a young mediator at that time and hearing that explanation helped my confidence in mediation.  Also, that explanation helped me to see that mediation really is a process-just because you did not reach an agreement at the end, it was not a failed mediation.  If the mediation was a process that moved the parties toward an agreement, then it was still a successful mediation.

Barclay: Is there any case or story in your experience where that particular story or group of people should NOT have gone to ADR?

Judge Morris:  Well, I can think of more cases that should have gone.  Our standing order really helps.  Before our standing order, I would start a hearing in court by asking the attorneys, “Okay, what are the issues before the Court today?  Please outline the issues for me.”  Everyone would start talking and then we would learn that the parties were in agreement with many issues after all and if the parties had gone to mediation, then this case would have been resolved already and never would have appeared in court. 

Barclay:  I saw a keynote at a conference last year where the speaker was saying that courts need to start considering themselves to be more of a service rather than a building or a place. The speaker was pointing to the thousands of disputes that eBay settles through an online process.  Is that example relevant to our current ADR system?

Judge Morris: I have heard that eBay example from multiple people.  I don’t know if it is actually a valid comparison to what we do. Settling a dispute about a product bought on eBay is a lot different than settling a custody dispute. Some things need to be in person.  The stakes are a lot higher.  As far as the courts being a service instead of just a building or a place people go, I would agree.  We are here to serve the public and mediation is one way we serve the public and allow them a better alternative than going into a courtroom and just fighting it out.

Barclay:  Our last question, is there anything that the citizenry or your colleagues should know about ADR that we haven’t covered?

Judge Morris:   I would add that mediation is empowering. It helps people unlock their power to resolve their own problems and improve their own situation. The immediate benefit to mediation is to resolve the immediate problem. But, to me, the long term benefit is people see that they have the ability to work together and to solve common problems, particularly in child custody cases. The parties are going to be dealing with issues with that child or children for the rest of their lives. We overcome a big hurdle together when the parties realize that we can all focus on what is best for their child instead of fighting.